Young Thug: BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS (2017) – Album Review

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So this is what happens when you cross gangsta rap with the singer-songwriter genre… As you might expect, certain songs here are bewildering (in a good way), like for instance ‘Me or Us’, which sounds for all the world like a Paul Simon co-write with its innocent acoustic strumming, or ‘For Y’all’, which has a horn chart adding mariachi flavouring for no reason at all except, y’know, good times.

I’ve long been aware that rap is the most adventurous genre of music in the game, so it was no surprise to hear that Young Thug had recorded a ‘singing album’ with country and melodic R&B touches – but it is a fair surprise to hear that it sounds this good. It shouldn’t be – Thug’s rapping has always had a sing-song cadence to it, partly thanks to autotuning but mainly due to a wacky variability in pitch and tone that he’s utilised to become one of the most distinctive voices in music. His larynx commands more sound effects than the latest Star Wars film: grunts, shrieks, yelps of delight, warbles, and ‘skrrt skrrt’s all emanate and mix together with a rhythmic unpredictability to make his vocal performances endlessly fascinating works of beauty. Hence this is a vocal album to trump most singer-songwriter’s recent efforts, even if classic trap beats and rumbling basslines serve as a constant reminder that this is still hip-hop.

Another reminder is the all-round thuggery of the words, full of dumb boasting such as ‘I’m the black Christian Grey, you know what I’m sayin’?/I got fifty shades of baes with me’. Oh dear… To be fair, Thug does manage to sneak in some cute shout-outs to his six children on ‘Daddy’s Birthday’, his fiancée on multiple occasions, and, er, the green stuff (with Snoop Dogg in tow, of course) on ‘Get High’. But then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like ‘Let’s drink a pint of codeine/When she on syrup she a lil easy’, which sounds to me like rape. As an oh-so-middle-class non-G who abhors bullshit macho posturing in all its forms, and most especially when it involves forcing yourself on inebriated or unwilling women, I find moments such as this one very hard to take. And so should you. But it must be said that Thug’s music is still undeniable, and it would be hypocritical to try and pretend that I’m immune to its many charms.

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Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit: The Nashville Sound (2017) – Album Review

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Back in 2013, Beyoncé’s masterpiece ‘XO’ cannily perceived how our awareness of death might only serve to intensify the heightened emotions of love, and hence be a good thing: ‘We don’t have forever/Baby daylight’s wasting/You better kiss me… Before they turn the lights out/Before our time has run out/Baby love me lights out!’ Now here we are in 2017 and alt-country hero Jason Isbell has written us an imaginative song in much the same vein: ‘If We Were Vampires’ ponders what would happen if he and his wife were never to shuffle off this mortal coil, and concludes that ‘I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand… Maybe time running out is a gift/I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift.’

It’s one of many quietly ingenious, heart-warming moments on this tender album. The album ends, for instance, with these ace words of advice to his daughter: ‘Just find what makes you happy girl/And do it ’til you’re gone.’ A family man and proud, The Nashville Sound continues Isbell’s journey towards contentment, one that started with his last solo album Something More Than Free. However, it also remembers the dark times that went before that, as witnessed in 2013’s Southeastern where his past as an alcoholic was both directly and obliquely explored. So Isbell understands why a working-class stiff might turn to drink as an escape from his life in ‘Cumberland Gap’, and how a miner might indulge in long-distance sex because his short-distance existence is so unbearable in ‘Tupelo’; although it must be said that his sympathy doesn’t extend to the US President whose election campaign promised to restore these character’s industries – Trump’s agenda frightens him, particularly when considering a future for his daughter, a future that he nevertheless still believes in: ‘I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation/I think the man upstairs musta took a vacation/I still have faith, but I don’t know why/Maybe it’s the fire in my daughter’s eye.’

This album is extraordinary then in terms of its searching, optimistic lyrics. And if the music is slightly less extraordinary, well, it doesn’t detract from what remains an essential purchase. The lumbering albatross of this album is the 7-minute ‘Anxiety’, which is awkwardly slung round the middle of its neck and is an unfortunate distraction from much of the good work elsewhere. Isbell’s vocals are another distraction, proving to lack some of the gritty character and charisma of many of his characters – I’ve long considered his voice to be a tad too pretty, too smooth.

Nevertheless it’s great to have the 400 Unit back supporting him, their large sound beefing up well over half the tracks with potent crunchy guitar and drums. But the nicest musical touches of all come from Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires, who appears on fiddle and backup vocals throughout, and who doesn’t just add subtle variety but also makes clearer the familial atmosphere that imbues these recordings with a warm fuzz.

Country music is great at disproving the lie that domesticity in art is naff, boring or somehow ‘bourgeois’. In The Nashville Sound, as elsewhere in Isbell’s career, the simple matter of settling down and raising a family sounds like the greatest adventure of them all.

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Laerte-se (2017) – Film Review

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Available to watch on Netflix. This documentary explores the life of Brazilian cartoonist Laerte Coutinho, who in 2004 came out as a transgender woman after nearly six decades of living as a heterosexual man. The death of one of Laerte’s sons seemingly triggered a bout of gender dysphoria. This led to an exploring of the titillating idea of transvestitism: firstly in the fictional cartoon strips that brought her fame, and latterly in the dressing of her own body. Laerte is not strictly transsexual – she damn well likes her penis, and is disturbed by the notion of losing it – although she’s perturbed by her scrotum and yearns for breasts. But as this film makes delightfully clear, gender is a spectrum that should be considered (celebrated, even!) as a separate condition from biological sex. Laerte decries certain ‘fascists’ in the transgender community who try to put her down for not having had breast implants, implying that she’s somehow less of a woman because of it, a line of argument she rightly dismisses as ‘corporatism’. If gender identity is fluid then it should be entirely about choice, and nobody should be able to dictate how your body corresponds to said choice. Laerte-se is a forceful argument in this vein: one striking shot sees Laerte shaving in the shower, her penis protruding slightly from in between her legs, reminding us that genital and (performative) gendered sex can be quite different things. Laerte herself, as a human being, comes across as warm and likeable throughout, but rather distant – there are emotional barricades she puts up, seemingly to bar this documentary from full access, so that by the end she still remains quite an enigma. Her cartoons, which are generously deployed, give a glimpse of a deeper malaise and dissatisfaction, yet they’re always smothered with black humour – hinting at a more intimate well of personality, which the filmmakers never quite unmask. Still, as an examination of gender fluidity first and foremost, Laerte-se’s both fascinating and prescient. And its profundity ultimately boils down to a simple statement, as most profundities do: ‘human beings should be allowed to enjoy themselves, regardless of gender.’ What kind of asshole would disagree with that?

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Chuck Berry: Chuck (2017) – Album Review

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Hands down the single most important figure in the history of rock music (Dylan and Hendrix aren’t too far behind, but they are still behind), Chuck Berry will forever be the first port of call when future generations try to get to grips with the groundbreaking phenomenon that is (Hail! Hail!) rock & roll. He invented the form: without him there’d be no Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, Kinks, Springsteen etc. etc. you get the point. His revolutionary fusion of a backbeat-you-can’t-lose-it with explosive riffs and soloing on guitar (plus bluesy bass and boogie-woogie piano never too far down in the mix) codified the basic language of rock & roll and inspired millions of teenagers; simultaneously his exceptional lyrics invented the basic language of teenage rebellion: ‘School Day’ articulates better than any song I’ve heard how popular music is essentially a locus for working- and middle-class kids to vent their anger at the petty frustrations of life. And get laid. The man who penned ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ (incredibly his only no. 1 single) was ever the sly fox who knew full well that all of the dancehalls and automobiles peppering his narratives were essentially heady metaphors for s-e-x (see ‘I Wanna Be Your Driver’ for only the most obvious example).

In short, the man was a genius, and an utterly unpretentious one. Oh, and ‘Promised Land’ may just be the greatest song lyric ever written.

Now I’ve gotten my love for the recently deceased off my chest, let’s turn to the matter at hand: Chuck, the great man’s first posthumous album, and his first one in 38 years. It was recorded in a series of sessions that began in 2001 and continued right up until his death, at 90 years old, earlier this year. It’s a ‘greatest hits’ of his last 15 years on earth, then, and suitably raggedy as a result. But not nearly as shabby as you might expect.

Naturally, there are no songs here to match epoch-defining classics like ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Rock & Roll Music’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Brown Eyed Handsome Man’, ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’… But there are plenty of good ones. Starting with hot opening duo ‘Wonderful Woman’ and ‘Big Boys’, in which his famous catalogue of riffs, including that ‘Johnny B. Goode’ one, are recycled again and yet sound remarkably fresh, even when coming from the red Gibson and aged vocals of an octogenarian. ‘Lady B. Goode’ and ‘Jamaica Moon’ are sequels to known classics that satisfyingly reward long-term fans of his amazing career. And he’s still a sly fox, cunningly updating his double entendres for the 21st century on the live, sleazy, and very funny ‘3/4 Time (Enchiladas)’: ‘I’ve been hoping to find a woman like you, honey, whose software matches this hard drive of mine.’

Rock is a collaborative sport, as Berry full well knows, and he benefits not just from the support of The Blueberry Hill Band, who sizzle here where his 50s crew erupted (perhaps in deference to his age), but also from the well-judged cameo appearances of Tom Morello, Nathaniel Rateliff, and Gary Clark, Jr. (on guitars the lot of ’em), all of whom rightly sound blessed to be allowed to record with the founder of their careers. Best of all, though, are the several collaborations with his children, Charles Berry Jr. on guitar and Ingrid Berry on harmonica, which help to make for example the gorgeous tribute to their ever-comforting presence, ‘Darlin’’, sound so real and so true: ‘Your father’s growing older/Each year strands of grey are showing bolder/Come here and lay your head upon my shoulder/My dear, the time is passing fast away.’

As you might gather from that quote, this album feels more autobiographical in tone than anything Berry’s recorded previously. Most of all, it’s dedicated to his long-suffering wife Themetta ‘Toddy’ Berry, who for nearly 70 years put up with his well-known cheating ways, plus a whole lot more I’m sure, and who very much deserves such tender tributes as ‘Wonderful Woman’ and the spoken-word ‘Dutchman’. Which isn’t to say that Chuck’s forgotten his roots in fiction, for there are several narratives that live up to his poetic reputation: ‘Big Boys’ is a cute tale about partying with girls and boys out of your league, and ‘Lady B. Goode’ is a typically well written story-in-song. Yet the female perspective of the latter is proof again that he has matured some, and recognises that he owes a great debt to his greatest lady friend.

Chuck is a worthwhile addition and a fitting ending to his catalogue then, providing both a rare opportunity to learn more about the character of Chuck himself, and/or to revel in the sharpness of his fictional observations, as you see fit. Any old way you choose it.

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My Life as a Courgette (2016) – Film Review

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When people tell me they believe the quality of films are in decline, I like to remind them that we’re currently in a Golden Age for animation. Not just the consistent powerhouses of Pixar and Studio Ghibli, but also smaller studios from all around the world, are investing in carefully considered, thoughtful stories with absorbing narratives that just so happen to be animated. It’s incredibly lucky for all of us that as animation has moved into three dimensions, it has also moved closer to a multidimensional approach to characterisation and the perplexities of the wider world – as so far most inane comic book blockbusters have failed to do. A shortlist of brilliance, from this decade alone: Toy Story 3, Frozen, Despicable Me, Anomalisa, Kubo and the Two Strings, The Little Prince, Moana, Zootropolis, Your Name

Add to that list The Red Turtle, which I raved about last week, and the alternately adorable and harrowing My Life as a Courgette, which I’ll rave about now.

I haven’t seen a film quite so tonally audacious as this one for a very long time. There are moments with the sweetness and innocence of licking a lollipop in summer; there are other moments with the bitter and undeserved cruelty of finding you’ve dropped it. It’s a tale with an unsettling synopsis: a 9 year-old boy, Icare, nicknamed Courgette by his alcoholic mother, finds himself, due to a very dark twist of fate, landed in an orphanage with a group of kids who have equally turbulent pasts. Drug addiction, murder, sex abuse, and the deportation of immigrant relatives are just some of the issues these little – tragically little – human beings have had to face. One heartbreaking recurring moment, for example: a girl runs onto the orphanage’s porch whenever she hears a car’s engine, calling out ‘mum!’ We know, of course, her mum will never come.

What’s amazing is that these serious issues are never overplayed for easy, sentimental tears; nor do they ever threaten to cast a permanent shadow over the slight, 66-minute film, which in total is an uplifting experience. Scenes of a ski resort trip, a disco, a Halloween party, and many more are infused with such joy that I can only attribute them to a supreme empathy shown by the filmmakers in their depiction of childhood. Perhaps it’s the especially fractious nature of the world at this time that causes me to be so moved by these scenes of communal, shared enjoyment; perhaps it’s more simply a nostalgia for childhood days of yore, an emotion that I’m normally suspicious of, but not in the case of this film. It’s hard to be suspicious when you’re laughing your socks off, at the innocent ways in which these kids discuss the intricacies of sex. And when Courgette discovers love for the first time, it’s not only impossibly sweet, it’s also believably life-altering.

This film is both bitter and sweet to its core, an oxymoron that plays out in the technical accomplishment of the animation itself – a stop-motion universe of just about recognisably human figures who have exaggerated, sickly pale faces, as unnerving as a clown’s, yet with wide open eyes inviting empathy, and overt primary colours (garish dashes of blue, yellow, and red) shading their hair and the shadows around their eyes. It’s a striking palette that serves the story, even as it resists beauty in a way the Pixar and Studio Ghibli aesthetics, for instance, certainly don’t.

The beauty instead comes from the script, by the terrific Céline Sciamma (Girlhood, Being 17), from a novel by Gilles Paris, which comprehends a child’s perspective so acutely, and with a warmth that’s impossible to resist. And of course credit is due to first-time Swiss director Claude Barras, most certainly a talent to watch, who so ably deals with the book’s, and Sciamma’s, sharp tonal shifts.

The greatest testament I can give to this rich film is this: despite everything the kids go through, it really makes you long to be a part of Icare’s life as a Courgette.

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The Red Turtle (2016) – Film Review

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If you have any doubts left that animated films can be amongst our most serious and profound artistic statements (you shouldn’t), this film should dispel them with the easeful grace of a turtle’s fin gliding through water. It doesn’t shout about how profound it’s being: quite literally, there’s no onscreen dialogue (beyond the odd ‘hey!’). It doesn’t beat you around the head with capital-S ‘Symbolism’, either. But in a hushed way, with only a whisper of pretension, its simple tale of a man washed up on an island who first attacks and then befriends a giant red turtle manages to convey all aspects of life from birth to romance to parenthood and death – and then back again to a kind of rebirth. All in just 80 minutes.

It’s a Studio Ghibli co-production, which might account for its radical simplicity -unshouted messages of environmental concern are at the heart of My Neighbour Totoro and many other of the great studio’s works. And indeed here too, exceptionally well-drawn backdrops of the natural world make an unshowy argument for the environment’s inherent beauty and the importance of our custodial duty in preserving it. Stormy seas and crystal blue waters, expanses of sand and towering palm trees, birds flying and turtles soaring – these are all exquisitely detailed and painstakingly coloured, as we’ve come to expect and now unfortunately take for granted with Studio Ghibli.

Yet The Red Turtle departs in many ways from the studio’s oeuvre, co-produced as it is with several other studios including France’s Wild Bunch and Belgium’s Belvision, whilst directed by an outsider: the Dutch-born, London-based Michaël Dudok de Wit. This seems to me a fittingly global setup, for international cooperation is the only way in which we can truly act to preserve the environment. But the difference is most apparent in the human figures: Studio Ghibli’s characters have always been clearly expressed through their eyes, the so-called windows to the soul. Here, the eyes take the form of just single black beads, which as many reviewers have pointed out owes a greater debt to Hergé’s Tintin comics than anime, and which means that we learn more about the character’s personalities from their overt body movements and physical interaction with surroundings. As such, the mise-en-scène is generally more distant, the camera tending to point down at the living figures from far above when they’re on land and far below when they’re in the sea, giving them space to move around and convey their emotions to us, cleverly, without the need for close-ups.

This distancing effect also powerfully conveys the film’s key message: that the natural world is far bigger than all of us tiny human beings who inhabit it, and surely it will carry on long after we’re gone. Our hero is dwarfed in almost every shot by sand dunes, enormous trees and rock structures, and in the film’s most dramatic moment a frightening tsunami. His vulnerability recalls last year’s The Revenant, where Leonardo DiCaprio was similarly both oppressed and enchanted by his surroundings, but of course it also recalls all battles with nature that have been a consistent fascination in our narrative fictions from The Odyssey to Robinson Crusoe to Life of Pi. I’ve long believed that the stories we tell mirror the deepest fears in our collective subconscious, and the fear that the world we inhabit could one day swallow us all up and leave no trace of our existence is a common one, no doubt because it’s not just very likely to happen at some point but practically a certainty. As I’m sure I don’t need to stress, rising sea levels due to our incessant and stupidly short-sighted polluting makes our continued existence on this gorgeous planet diminishingly likely. In its final shot, The Red Turtle breathes a sigh of dismay at this future extinguishment, whilst showing us how nature will carry on regardless, like a newborn turtle making its first dangerous journey from sandy shore to the sea.

As you may have gathered, if you have children, this might not be the animated film to share with them at a young age. Or maybe it is – we do all need to understand, from a very young age, how the environment is so much more important than mankind’s ego-driven pursuit of profit, or else we run the Trumpian risk of speeding up our eventual demise. And this film is positive at heart: it believes that if we stop, look and listen to the natural world, rather than simply exploiting it, we can not only extend but, perhaps more importantly, also greatly enrich our species’ lifetime.

So do go to see The Red Turtle, please, and take as many people with you as possible: you will be enchanted by almost every one of its 80 minutes, I guarantee. You could just switch off and enjoy the extravagant visuals if you prefer – but I say choose to ignore the underlying message, and dismiss it as hippie nonsense, at all of our peril.

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I usually post a trailer at this point, but the one for this film gives away vital plot elements that I was careful to conceal in my review – and, what’s worse, it also contains a majority of the film’s most impressive shots. A common gripe with trailers, but particularly grievous in this instance. Avoid, and head straight to the cinema.

Frantz (2016) – Film Review

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François Ozon’s 17th film in 20 years (amazingly prolific for a 21st century director) is certainly one of his finest. It’s a bold idea: a remake of a 1932 drama, Broken Lullaby, by one of the greatest directors of all time: Ernst Lubitsch. Broken Lullaby is one of that sly master’s lesser efforts though, certainly more suited for a reboot than the eternally fresh To Be Or Not to Be or The Shop Around the Corner. And besides, Ozon takes intriguing liberties with his source, inventing a second half to Lubitsch’s tale (itself based on a play by Maurice Rostand), in which the supporting woman powerfully seizes centre stage away from what was previously a narrative concerning a returned soldier.

The woman is German and is called Anna (Paula Beer), and at the start of the film she’s mourning the death of her fiancé, Frantz, at the end of the First World War. She finds out that a Frenchman called Adrien (Pierre Niney) has been visiting her fiancé’s grave on a daily basis, for reasons that are initially unclear, but help to create a satisfying web of narrative suspense throughout the film’s first half.

Psychosexual implications abound, with the unsettling thought that Adrien might be trying to replace the deceased Frantz in Anna’s affections; this has an undoubted whiff of the ‘doubles’ and necrophilia of Vertigo about it. And, like that film, our understanding of the principle character’s motivations change with a perspective shift in the second half. It follows Anna in travelling to France, and so we start to see the more fantastical aspects of her obsession with Adrien.

We also witness the knife-edge tension between her home nation and his, and several scenes of xenophobic mistrust between French and German locals are very well handled by Ozon, demonstrating the colossal tensions brought about by the war even in the early years of peace. One particularly pointed scene sees Anna sitting in a French café as the locals stand up to salute a trio of soldiers with a loud rendition of La Marseillaise, and Anna’s uncertainty as to how she should act, her embarrassed awkwardness, accidentally exposes the veiled threat of nationalism lurking beneath even simple, understandable acts of patriotism. The Nazis could just have easily happened in France, had the economic situation been anywhere near as dire as Germany’s in the interwar period, and Ozon is quick and thoughtful enough to be aware of this.

Less well handled are the film’s lurching transitions between black and white and colour photography. These might be intended as a tribute to the truly great film about interwar Germany, Heimat, but they still feel heavyhanded. And the luscious colour photography in particular manages to overkill the Romanticism of the scenes of romance (scenes filmed in fields and forests and streams, with poetry recited). I wish it had stuck to the crisper black and white tones throughout, which reveal so much fascinating detail in the contours of the actor’s faces.

And what faces! Pierre Niney’s is thin and aquiline, inviting sympathy with his kindly eyes, yet also inviting suspicion with a hyper-alertness that seems to be working hard to mask some terrible secrets. And Paula Beer’s is pretty in a quiet way, searching and inquisitive and young (the actress is only 22), yet clearly downcast with the weight of the world already. Mature. François Ozon seizes on these unique features to exploit the finest two performances thus far in all of his films, using the complex shadows of Pascal Marti’s photography to maximise each one’s impact in a most impressive way.

Ozon’s got another film coming out this year, of course he does, but he’ll have a tough job matching the repressed passion of this one. Even if he could sometimes do with a wee bit more of Lubitsch’s legendary lightness of touch.

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Jlin: Black Origami (2017) – Album Review

I would first like to offer my deepest condolences to all of the poor families affected by the terrorist incident last night in Manchester. I’ve been unable to think of anything else all day: appalled, sickened, depressed. I wasn’t sure whether to publish this review today, out of respect, but these attacks are a deliberate attempt to disrupt the flow of civilised society, not to mention our enjoyment of music from death metal to Ariana Grande, and so I feel that the best way to retaliate is to carry on appreciating the wonders of music as usual (whilst never, ever forgetting the lives tragically lost, of course). Which is why a) I’m still going to be seeing Radiohead in Manchester on the 4th July, fuck you radicalists, and b) I’m still going to recommend the very good album below on this day of mourning. We should stick to our pleasures, in the face of extremism, now more than ever before.

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Jerrilynn Patton, a.k.a. Jlin, is an electronic musician from Gary, Indiana. She’s renowned for her work in footwork, an electronic subgenre that combines rapid dance beats (tracks hurtle by at approx. 160bpm) with avant-garde flourishes. I’m by no means an expert on electronic music (got the above information from Wikipedia, folks), but I was nevertheless instantly attracted to this distinctive artist’s world: multiple polyrhythmic percussive elements tussle with each other atop chopped-up Indian voices, ululations which are made to sound just as percussive through their lack of melodic cadence, whilst dark basslines and industrial sound effects quietly undermine the general uplift of the clamour. This is a ‘black’ record in two senses of the word: firstly, in its stark rejection of the colouring of melody, leaving a pop-abjuring vacuum as dark as space that’s somewhat alarmingly filled with the angry, martial beats of drums; secondly, in its celebration of an underclass of explicitly non-white sampled voices, which come together across the course of the album to threaten the despised ‘1%’ (the name of one song, which helps to make the political context more explicit). The overall effect is of M.I.A. without the hooks, every track crossing cultural borders like that artist’s famous ‘Paper Planes’. Jlin was apparently inspired by her ongoing collaborations with Indian ‘dancer/movement artist’ Avril Stormy Unger, and it shows, but the musical texture has a speed and aggression that very much finds its feet in the footwork of Jlin’s earlier career, whilst there are also collaborations with American avant-gardists William Basinski and Holly Herndon. What should be a mess instead comes across as a focussed 45-minute blast of electronic rebellion, culminating in a ‘Challenge (To Be Continued)’, which comes both as a promise and a veiled threat after all that’s gone before. The lack of melodic structure makes the soundscapes more of an endurance test than, say, Burial (a personal favourite). But, even for an electronic dilettante, the effort’s certainly worth it.

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Paramore: After Laughter (2017) – Album Review

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Well this is a nice surprise. I’ve never paid this band much attention, due to my general irritation with labelmates Fall Out Boy and the silly middle-class self-pity and even sillier death fixation of emo music. A quick check back to 2013’s Paramore confirmed my biases were correct. That album’s adoption of 80s synths and other pop concessions made it an unexpected hit with critics at the time, and their first no. 1 album in the US and UK to boot. But far as I saw it, the bombastic and humourless overproduction smothered any suggestion of pop sensibility, and it felt designed expressly to appeal to unstable teenagers. Not for me.

So imagine my shock at the pure pop brilliance, now immersed fully in new wave, evidenced on the first 5 tracks of After Laughter, with hook after hook hitting home, trick after trick working unforeseen magic. First listen gave me a piquant musical adrenaline rush to rival Grimes’ Art Angels – that’s quite a compliment in my books – whilst several listens in my excitement has only slightly diminished. I still adore many of its surprises: the marimba and bongos that open out and bleed into the crunchy synth-rock hooks on ‘Hard Times’, the ‘Low-key! No pressure!’ chants on the addictive ‘Rose-Colored Boy’, the supremely melodic basslines and Afropop-derived guitar licks on ‘Forgiveness’ (a superb example of the never-better interplay between the band members), the soaring choruses on ‘Told You So’ and ‘Fake Happy’ (and indeed all the other songs). Haters gonna hate, and a quick check on their Facebook page confirmed my suspicion that some ‘fans’ (though not all) would be screaming the moronic, depressingly mindless phrase ‘sellout’. Me, I’m high on their rejection of emo trappings in favour of good old-fashioned pop effusiveness, and I sincerely hope they can take this all the way up the charts again (Harry Styles be damned).

Sadly, it doesn’t sustain, and the last 4 tracks are as weak consistently as the first 5 are strong. Baffling production choices occur, such as on ‘No Friend’, which buries the vocals deep down making them indecipherable – for artistic reasons that are equally indecipherable. And ‘Tell Me How’, a piano sort-of ballad that closes the album, unfortunately only serves to expose the weakness of lead singer Hayley Williams’ voice, which can carry a tune just fine, but only if it requires belting out, and just isn’t subtle enough to sustain a whole album of dynamic changes. I found myself yearning for Rihanna, who carried with ease the album-closing ballad on ANTI, a similar pop tour-de-force, and with a depth of personality that Hayley Williams can only dream of.

It’s best to ignore the lyrics as well, as I have in this review, because they don’t seem to have shrugged off the emo shackles so well as the music. You might think ‘all I want is a hole in the ground’ and ‘I can’t think of getting old/It only makes me want to die’ are windows into depression, but I think they’re shutters obfuscating the deeper beauty of the album. The pop ebullience of the first few tracks (plus the terrific ‘Pool’ and ‘Grudges’) is the real reason to purchase After Laughter: wide open and searching for fun, not to mention dancefloor giddiness, the band discover a depth of musicality in the childishness of these highpoints that they never managed to find in teenagerdom.

Paramore of this please.

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A Monster Calls (2016) – Film Review

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The uncharitable might dismiss this film as saccharine hokum. And saccharine it is – tears flow bountifully, as befits a film based on a children’s book about a boy whose mother is dying of cancer and whose only friend is an imaginary tree (voiced by Liam Neeson, who of course suffered a very public loss of his own). But is it hokum? I don’t think so; it’s got some vital things to say about grieving. Key to appreciating the film is acknowledging that the boy, who appears in every scene, is not a likeable character. Conor O’Malley (played with immense courage by 14 year-old Lewis MacDougall) is caustic and aggressive, lashing out physically at the school bullies who have given him hell and, more troublingly, some of his loved ones who haven’t. Spielberg would recoil at such a thing, but I greatly admire how it refuses to sentimentalise youth. As the mother’s health continues to deteriorate, so does Conor’s rage understandably build up. But if we watch closely then we start to realise that this outwardly expressed anger is really directed at himself, and we begin to feel for the poor kid. As does the imaginary tree monster of the title, who acts as some kind of subconscious counsellor, relating three (lushly animated) stories that are designed to demonstrate how there’s no such thing as right and wrong. These stories finally draw out a truth, a nightmare, from within Conor that lies at the heart of all human beings when they’re put in the position of witnessing the long drawn-out death of a loved one. It’s an unimaginably painful truth, and it’s especially awful to hear when coming from the mouth of a pre-teen. But its nakedness helps to make this one of the most honestly therapeutic films that I’ve seen. And as such, A Monster Calls is necessary viewing – not hokum. With an added bonus: excellent supporting turns from Felicity Jones as the dying mother, Sigourney Weaver as the embattled grandmother, and Toby Kebbell as the handsome but flakey divorcee father. I accept that it’s very middlebrow and rather artlessly directed, but then every type of -brow has to deal with death at some point, don’t they?

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You can watch it online now: http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-a-monster-calls-2016/?gclid=CI7jzt7u4NMCFc687QodydUBBQ