Reviews Roundup: I, Daniel Blake; Lady Gaga, Leonard Cohen

IN CINEMAS

I, Daniel Blake

It’s no secret that Ken Loach is a socialist, and he doesn’t seem keen to shirk such pidgeonholing. I’m left-leaning and proud, I share most of his convictions, yet as a cinemagoer I believe that a tinge of doubt is required in all celluloid political commentary. Why? Because otherwise you run the risk of handing an easy counterpunch to the 3e1d48646ce32893d008a65b7c184366_original.jpgenemy, who will cry ‘propaganda’. The right-wing press has of course done exactly that in reviewing this film, and though I have little time for almost anyone operating on Rupert Murdoch’s payroll, this time I must concur with them. You’re not going to win over the opposition by patronising them, so the honest, hard-working, caring everyman of Daniel Blake, the film’s working class hero, is easy to dismiss as a socialist’s idealised view of the poor, just as the empty-shell bureaucrats he encounters in the job centre are an exaggeration of the welfare system’s failures. I’ve been through the system myself, I’m well aware of its inadequacies, especially the way in which it treats people as a series of online stats rather than as the vulnerable beings they are. But despite moments of understandable severity, the majority of staff I’ve encountered whilst claiming JSA have seemed to be sympathetic and genuinely concerned with the welfare of their claimants. Naturally, I can’t speak for job centres across the country, and certainly not in Newcastle where this film is set. Yet the film’s depiction of the staff as droids just ticking boxes on a computer has a dehumanising effect, one that is comparable with the working class dehumanisation which so rightly disturbs Loach. I find hypocrisy dismaying wherever I find it, including here. It’s a pity, because the cast seem ready to take on more nuance than is ever permitted them, with Dave Johns radiating good humour as the title character, even if we never feel the weight of his lifelong struggles, and Hayley Squires superb as a single mother who delivers the film’s most devastating blow in a food bank. We badly need Britain’s art and culture to tackle the pernicious shambles of this wealthy country’s inability to look after its most vulnerable, we really do. But we need it to be done with a lot more tact than is displayed here.

2.5.png

 

ON SPOTIFY

Joanne – Lady Gaga

lady-gaga-joanne-cover-tgj-600x600.jpgI’ve admired Lady Gaga ever since her inception startled the world – she represents many things that I support wholeheartedly: sex and music as unabashed pleasure; gay rights activism; big, daft hooks and bigger, dafter beats; a disregard for high/low cultural divides. But Gaga’s endearing zaniness has nevertheless resulted in an uneven banger:filler ratio on her albums, and that’s an issue here as well. For every ‘A-YO’, a tour de force of modern electropop songcraft with guitar licks from Josh Homme and searing vocals to boot, there is a ‘Perfect Illusion’, the weak first single which awkwardly pivots around a key change in its final third. The pink cowboy hat adorning the album’s cover is a signal of the significant shift in musical direction within, with Gaga dabbling in such country styling as the slide guitar which makes cameo appearances throughout and her twangy performance on the Nashville-inspired ballad ‘Million Reasons’. Country music thematically suits her predilection for bad men, with John Wayne here amusingly singled out for erotic attention as Judas was on Born This Way. But overall she seems hesitant to completely commit to the genre, of course not wishing to abandon her solid pop fanbase in the process. There’s nothing wrong with country-pop compromise in theory, genres which Shania Twain and Taylor Swift have shown are separated by a slim thread, however Gaga’s tentative approach makes songs like ‘Sinner’s Prayer’ quite laborious when a little chutzpah could’ve made them a joy. She sounds much more at home on the archetypal disco thump of ‘Diamond Heart’ and the epic masturbation odyssey ‘Dancin’ in Circles’, glitz and sensuality being more her thang. With luck age and experience will deepen the stylistic diversions that are indeed suited to her hyperactivity, but on this occasion any potential was missed.

3.5.png

 

You Want it Darker – Leonard Cohen

Leonard-Cohen-You-Want-It-Darker.jpgLeonard Cohen tends to inspire slavish devotion amongst his fans – and I’m not being rude, because I’m one of them. Anyone who has failed to listen to his works with even the slightest attention will think of him as a manic depressive on record, but give ‘Tower of Song’ a spin and proceed from there, and you will quickly realise the warmth, wit, humanity, and wisdom that underlines his gravelly voice and occasionally foreboding poetic discourse. Now Cohen has challenged his fans: You Want it Darker, as the title suggests, is his bleakest in years. It resembles Plastic Ono Band in its dawning of a new nihilism for the artist, rejecting outright a (Jewish) God that has always intrigued his sceptical mind: ‘If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game.’ Cohen sounds so wounded by all of the appalling suffering in the world that he can no longer drag the mutilated corpse of his faith along. A God that permits such a vast scale of violence, a God that permanently wants it darker, is a God that no longer relates to his pacifism. He tries to offer up a reconciliation twice on the album: ‘I wish there was a treaty between your love and mine’, but the minor key and mournful tone of the string accompaniment don’t imply any hope of permanent resolution. The album sees a Cohen alone and defeated, despite the choruses that sometimes soothe the cracks in his ancient voice, abandoned not just by God but also by his libido: a notorious womaniser once upon a time, he now claims ‘I don’t need a lover, no, no/The wretched beast is tamed.’ There are jokes like this one, but not as frequently as expected, because defeatism seeps into every pore of the album’s being. It sounds like the tracks were recorded in a crypt, which matches the spiritual and romantic post-mortems to be found in the lyrics, with the prominent electric bass, as deep as thunder and of course Leonard’s larynx, a particularly unnerving feature. At the end, I felt the overwhelming desire to give Cohen a hug; he’s a man that I have loved and listened to so often, now in a period of darkness. As such, it’s an album that I’ll not be able to listen to often, but whenever I do I’m sure I will always appreciate the clear-minded transparency with which he has related this existential crisis.

4.0.png

Advertisements

Reviews Roundup: American Honey; Green Day

IN CINEMAS

American Honey

American-Honey-Movie-Poster.jpgThis lazy trawl through the American Midwest starts, like The Grapes of Wrath, in Oklahoma and ends in the middle of nowhere. Just like that novel and Huckleberry Finn and On the Road and Bonnie and Clyde etc. there is the feeling in American Honey that travel will resolve all one’s problems: if you keep on moving then your past can’t catch up, and you might just find that elusive thing called the American Dream. The film’s protagonist Star (Sasha Lane) is named after an otherworldly body, and she sure struggles to find any satisfaction on this planet. Star comes from a broken, meth-addicted home, is a victim of sexual abuse, and has no future prospects. Then she locks eyes with rebel hunk Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in a supermarket just as Rihanna blares out on the radio: ‘We found love in a hopeless place’. It must be a sign, surely? Jake certainly wants her to think so: he jumps up on a counter and starts goofily dancing, and is soon being shooed out by security.

It turns out that he belongs to a gang of youths who travel around America selling magazines – sales being the natural arena for all rags-to-riches tales, after all. Star thinks that this really is her chance to escape, to follow her Dream. It doesn’t take a cynic, just a lifelong fan of American fiction, to know that things won’t be so simple, that the American Dream can’t be so easily pinned down.

I love this film, and the somewhat tepid reception that it’s received from the British press hasn’t dulled that. The main criticism seems to be concerning its length – at 160 minutes it does take quite a chunk out of your day, but hardly a second of it is wasted. It’s been pointed out that long scenes of the gang singing along to rap/pop/indie/country songs don’t contribute much to the plot, but (British) director Andrea Arnold is alert to the ways in which music forms an essential aspect of life for working class communities in America; capturing the atmosphere of that participatory experience is an integral part of the film’s grand design. It brings these kids, who have emerged from different U.S. states, together into something akin to a family. Just for a moment they can find love in a hopeless place.

Luxuriate in the film’s relaxed pace, marvel at the naturalistic performances from a largely amateur cast, feel the damaged sexual tension between Lane and LaBeouf. Most of all, notice how Arnold builds up a poetic critique of the allure of American capitalism, without a hint of ironic sneering at the lives caught up in its empty promise. The shaky, handheld, out-of-focus photography keeps on picking up visual meanings that seem to have eluded most reviewers; in particular keep a sharp eye out for animals, which become a crucial recurring motif. And remember that although it’s certainly peculiar how the police never turn up, despite occasionally criminal endeavours, that’s exactly the point. No one cares about these kids, who have fallen through the cracks of American society, and they are left to their own devices. Which is both enthralling and terrifying for them.

It’s a confident and compelling addition to Arnold’s filmography, just one of a spate of outstanding British filmmakers to have emerged in the last decade. Another is Clio Barnard, whose exceptional The Selfish Giant also concerns this generation’s betrayal of its youth and the natural world. American Honey is never quite as moving as that film, but it comes close.

4.5.png

ON SPOTIFY

Revolution Radio – Green Day

green-day-revolution-radio.jpgRelistening to Green Day’s oeuvre recently left me with the same sinking feeling that I’ve had relistening to Muse and The Killers, a feeling that the bands which seemed so brilliant in my adolescence might not be all that. The difference I think is that I listen more carefully now, and these bands just don’t hold up under any sort of scrutiny, despite the occasional nuggets of pleasure they might throw up. Green Day are at their best when at their tightest, in the compressed songforms of Dookie especially, yet when they sprawl on American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown it’s hard to avoid hearing the vacuity that used to plague 70s prog-rock albums. Robert Christgau described it as the ‘sound of confusion taking itself seriously’, and though I used to suspect that such opinions were formed out of an elitist rejection of the pop-punk genre, he was right.

‘Confusion taking itself seriously’ would be a good tagline for this album, which returns Green Day to the political battlefield after 7 years MIA. Nobody much cared for their trilogy of albums released in 2012, ¡UNO!, ¡DOS!, ¡TRÉ!, so in a bid for critical adulation they are back on the hollow slogans production line. ‘Legalise the truth!’ ‘We live in troubled times!’ ‘We’re outlaws of redemption!’ ‘I wanna start a revolution!’ They don’t trouble themselves with who the ‘we’ or ‘I’ might be, all that matters are supplying the hooks for arenas filled with young liberals to scream along to. As a young liberal myself I should salute, but in the current Brexit/Donald Trump climate I’m deeply wary of the damage caused by oversimplification, and Green Day’s inability to describe the specificity of real-life politics has about it the unpleasant odour of apathy.

Of course, I used to like American Idiot because I employed my own brand of apathy: I ignored the lyrics. I tried this tack again with Revolution Radio, but listening with brain switched off turned out to be a deadening experience. ‘Somewhere Now’ stands out for its summery vibe, using cooing backing vocals and sunny chord changes that seem to suggest a better state of mind for Billy Joe Armstrong following years of alcohol addiction and a stint in rehab. That’s the highlight folks, because from there the ‘power trio’ fall back on the tried-and-tested pop-punk routine which used to be entertaining back in the 90s but now sounds wooden, particularly without the rhythmic elasticity that livened up hits such as ‘Longview’, ‘When I Come Around’, and ‘Brain Stew’, to name a few favourites. My head nodded in time only to stay awake, and none of the choruses urged me to sing along. And why does Armstrong’s voice strain for sincerity with every note, relinquishing the wit and pathos and intelligence that made The Clash, their obvious inspirations, one of the greatest of all rock bands?

We should be thankful that they’ve given up the haphazard ‘concepts’ of their Broadway era, and the ballad overkill of 21st Century Breakdown in particular. But really, the political situation is so appalling these days, we need our icons of rebellion to invest more into their words than just hazy generalisations. In which case I strongly urge you to bypass this album in favour of the Drive-By Truckers’ American Band, an instant classic that should give you a lot more hope for the future.

2.0.png

Reviews Roundup: Stranger Things, 13th; Young Thug, Danny Brown

ON NETFLIX

Stranger Things 

stranger-things-poster.jpgNetflix have scored another hit with this impressive 80s-set Gothic tale about thedisappearance of a young boy and the plaguing of a community by a hellish monster. It is a compendium of references to classic late 70s/early 80s horror/sci-fi/fantasy movies, with its plot being lifted from elements of The Thing, E.T., The Shining, Poltergeist, Carrie, The Evil Dead, and many others. The difficulty with this approach is that it is easy to slip into pastiche, i.e. empty nostalgic tributes to past glories, and Stranger Things certainly falls into this trap on occasion. The chilly synth soundtrack, for instance, is less a throwback to John Carpenter’s famous scores than an outright rip-off; the monster’s lair is almost identical to the one so memorably depicted in Aliens; government officials chase kids on bikes like in you-know-which family favourite. Nods like these to the audience are overplayed so that they practically headbutt the screen.

Still, the heart of this drama is the child actors who, indisputably, are the reason for the show’s success. Dorky, funny, generous, vulnerable, confused… they are, in a word, loveable. To get such warm performances from pre-teens is no mean feat, and the Duffer Brothers deserve enormous credit for it: each one is a distinct, rounded personality. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is the nerdy ringleader, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) the comic sidekick with brains and a no-bullshit attitude, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) the sceptic who fears the demise of their friendship group. Most remarkably of all, there is Millie Bobby Brown as ‘Eleven’, a child who is gifted/cursed with psychic powers and who looks uncannily like Renee Falconetti in the silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc; terrifyingly (the actress really is only 11 years old) she is able to summon, on occasion, equally tortured expressions of existential dread.

The wider cast is uniformly excellent, with teenagers and teachers and cops all joining together to search for the lost boy, successfully creating the illusion of an interconnected small-town community in jeopardy. This is how good fantastical drama should be made: I felt a greater concern and empathy for its characters in 8 episodes than the much-lauded, much-inferior Game of Thrones has mustered up in 6 series. Of course in Stranger Things there are deaths and other big shocks, but you can really feel the emotional damage and traumatic ramifications of such events upon a family, upon a community. Police Chief Jim Hopper is so much more engaging as an action hero than Jon Snow will ever be, because we are allowed to glimpse his flawed and complex nature, scarred by the past and devastated by the death of his daughter, and we get the feeling that the fight he has picked with the monster is also a battle within his soul. Jon Snow is only ever a cardboard cutout, Jim Hopper is a human being; Game of Thrones is a childish orgy of violence, Stranger Things a look at painful human insecurities.

I make such comparisons not just to puncture Game of Thrones’ inflated reputation, but to illustrate how great an entertainment I consider Stranger Things to be; not only is it slickly edited, gorgeously shot, atmospheric, and eccentric, but it’s also thoughtful and filled with ideas. The funniest and sweetest of these is the implication that the very strangest thing in these kid’s lives might not be the existence of ghouls and the supernatural, which they accept with implacable calm, but the notion of burgeoning romance. No matter how he tries, Mike just can’t seem to work out the extent of his feelings for the elusive Eleven, and meanwhile his older sister can’t determine whether she is in love with a jock or the elusive stranger who photographs her at night. Yet when these siblings are confronted with a carnivorous monster they know exactly how to react. Love is a scary business for some youngsters, perhaps even more so than a flesh-eating creature from Hell. As Eleven says to Mike, tearfully: ‘maybe I’m the monster.’

Netflix has renewed Stranger Things for another series, and it’s hard to see where they will go from here. The danger is that they will plunge deeper into the route of pastiche, forgetting that it’s the characters that make the show. But as long as they remember that this is, in essence, a coming-of-age parable about the terror and confusion of growing up, then it could be the start of something really special.

4.5.png

 

13th

13TH-NETFLIX-600x889.jpgA successful documentary should make you see things in a new light, and this one certainly startles: the 13th amendment to the American Constitution, Lincoln’s great coup abolishing slavery, is frequently touted as a high watermark of the nation’s history, but here its signification is revised to show that the wording has actually helped to enslave African-Americans throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The key concession is a seemingly throwaway phrase: ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.’ This documentary compellingly argues that such a concession has led to the criminalisation of black people in America, in order to justify their incarceration and subsequent deployment as slave labour in an increasingly corporatised prison system.

As it’s quick to point out, cinema has played a major role in the association of young black men with criminality, The Birth of a Nation being a particularly egregious example and a subsequent totem for the Ku Klux Klan; therefore the recontextualisation of the black persona within 13th is welcome indeed. Impassioned, interesting, intellectual, and eloquent, the academics and activists selected for interview here frequently illuminate much-discussed historical events, such as the Jim Crow laws, Civil Rights Movement and Ferguson riots, with fresh perspectives, which is not easy, but even more impressively the fractured voices coalesce into a convincing and consistent line of argument demonstrating how the word ‘Criminal’ has come to be associated with ‘Black’.

When Donald Trump describes himself as the ‘Law & Order candidate’, we should be clear that he really means the ‘anti-nigger candidate’, and 13th doesn’t shy away from this. But it doesn’t believe Hillary would help much either – the system of black repression is too entrenched in American culture, its interviewees argue – so it can’t be dismissed as a cheap attempt to sway the upcoming election. Instead, it’s an affirmation of the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement, a delineation of its existence within a tradition of protest that goes back to MLK and beyond, a howl of righteous anger against the centuries of unspeakable violence perpetrated on a people still shackled by the colour of their skin.

It doesn’t, in my opinion, go far enough in outlining the positive contributions of black Americans to society, which would be an effective refutation of their reputation for criminality – because they’re infinite. The most important of all, of course, is music: blues, jazz, rock n’ roll, funk, and hip-hop, a.k.a. the most influential genres of the 20th century, were all African-American innovations, and though they’re alluded to on the soundtrack, they’re never explicitly referenced. Still, the film reminds me of the lyrics to a Sam Cooke classic: ‘It’s been a long, a long time coming/But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will’. That was over 50 years ago, and it hasn’t come yet. But it will.

4.0.png

 

ON SPOTIFY

Jeffery – Young Thug

OJeffery.jpgne amusing aspect of being a white hip-hop fan is the recognition that in most cases you’re not the target audience, not by a long shot. An outspoken member of the infamous Bloods gang, Young Thug’s lyrical shots are so extraterrestrial to my sensibility that I’ve failed to connect with his gangsta schtick on any level, including musically – until this moment. Because there’s no denying it: Jeffery is a whirling dervish of fun. Perhaps it’s the relative lack of threats n’ street warfare that opens it up to my palette, even if I sympathise with the moralists who will be unable to get past the bitches n’ bling that still permeate proceedings. But as an aural box of Thuggish delights, this works a treat. Addictive moments accumulate rapidly: the down-low reggae groove of ‘Wyclef Jean’, vocal sample hook of ‘Swizz Beatz’, jazzy piano rolls of ‘Kanye West’, and Radiohead atmospherics of ‘Guwop’ all get the pulse going.

Then there’s Young Thug’s vocal ability as a rapper, trumping his lyrical shortfallings so often here, an adventurous and downright bizarre MC to rival Lil Wayne in the game. He cites Future (‘Future Swag’), Rihanna (‘RiRi’), and Kanye as influences, and their presence can certainly be felt, but Thug is from a different planet altogether. Squawking, squealing, yelping, growling, rumbling, roaring, screaming, and croaking his way through, this really is the definition of vocal acrobatics. When he sings the word ‘earn’ on ‘RiRi’ he sounds just like a dying puppy; at the end of ‘Harambe’ he sounds not like a dying gorilla, but Otis Redding beamed in from outer space: you’re never sure where his voice is going to take you next.

So Jeffery is worthwhile, even if you find thuggery hard to handle. And if you like your hip-hop with a pinch of progressiveness, try the album cover, which finds our young gangsta in an Alessandro Trincone dress. As he explained in a campaign video: ‘In my world it don’t matter: You could be a gangster with a dress or you could be a gangster with baggy pants… I feel like there’s no such thing as gender’. Which is something like progress.

3.5.png

 

Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown

danny-brown-atrocity-exhibition.jpgAnother alien life form to my sensibility, Danny Brown is a loud-and-proud dopehead, with his love of the herb inflecting almost every piece of music he produces. I can understand the appeal of grass, yet when Danny says on this album that ‘Mary Jane be the love of my life’ I find it concerning rather than cute. Still, maybe Danny does too, and that’s what I like about him; witness the bridge to the same song: ‘Problems of today/Smoke it to the face/It’s only for a moment/But the problems go away’. The key here is ‘it’s only for a moment’, because it’s a temporary solution, it’s an escapism rather than a resolution to life’s problems. The same could be said for booze, casual sex, harder drugs, and even music, all of which Danny indulges in – which is not to deny the fun in any of those things, but the problems will still be there when you inevitably come down, and maybe their distractions help to contribute towards a ‘Downward Spiral’. Only music offers a more permanent solace to the pessimistic Brown, because his profession has lifted him out of poverty and because ‘these songs that I write/Leave behind my legacy’, not just giving him an in-the-moment buzz.

As suggested by these lines, Danny Brown is a very self-conscious rapper, and he’s always had an exaggerated concern for his critical reputation and long-term standing as an MC. This self-consciousness leads to some amusing moments, such as in ‘Today’ when his rapping begins to sound like an aural déjà vu of Andre 3000, which is promptly acknowledged when he quotes a line from OutKast’s classic ‘B.O.B.’. I don’t think that Danny has reached the heights of his heroes yet, certainly not in vocal ability, for his Jekyll/Hyde trick of using a high freewheeling madcap voice on some songs and a low passive melancholy one on others is a bit too neat: he has yet to conjure up the subtlety of Andre’s or Chance’s or Kendrick’s timbres, for example.

The compartmentalisation of his albums is a bit too neat as well: Atrocity Exhibition is divided into thirds, with tracks 1-5 forming the industrial-sounding Joy Division tributes (plus posse track), tracks 6-10 the wild party anthems, and tracks 11-15 the comedown into spare atmospherics. The journey goes from needing a drag, to blazing up, and then finally mellowing out – as I said, the herb is everywhere in this music. Luckily, inspiration is also everywhere, and the middle tracks in particular sound like nothing else in music, thrusting avant-garde brass and polyrhythmic percussion and African choruses into a Wall of Sound of Rap. Gone are the grime inflections and commercial EDM moves of his previous album Old, and in their place is a feverish collision course of submainstream genres and sounds, at its best in the lunatic ‘Dance in the Water’. So if you’re into the Green then give Brown a shot; but if you’re into out-there music then give him a shot too.

3.5.png

Reviews Roundup: The Girl on the Train; Kate Tempest

IN CINEMAS

The Girl on the Train

The-Girl-on-the-Train-movie-Poster-2016.jpgI passed on the book, turned off by comparisons to Gone Girl (as puerile a depiction of marriage as fiction has produced). I’m glad I did, because this film has done nothing to endear me to its cult. The title would’ve caught Hitchock’s eye, it’s true. Trains? One of his favourite motifs. Girls? Even more so, particularly if they were blonde. And the opening proved promising, with Rachel (Emily Blunt) gazing out of the train’s window at a couple – Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan (Haley Bennett) – whom she considers ‘perfect’. It displays a Hitchockian recognition that the window itself is like a cinema screen, upon which the Girl projects her innermost desires of domesticated life, like James Stewart in Rear Window. But that film, and years of cinematic experience, have taught us to treat the idea of ‘perfection’, particularly in marriage, with scepticism. So the woman on the (window) screen disappears – has she eloped, is she pregnant, was she murdered? We’re shown that the marriage had been a turbulent one, as we might have guessed. Yet the plot is set in motion, with both Rachel and ourselves acting as detectives…

In the end, I think the comparisons to Gone Girl are more apt than to Hitchcock, because the film is so absorbed in its own structure, in its escalation towards a climactic twist, that it ignores the basic tenets of storytelling. The big twist refocuses our impression of where the protagonists lie on the good-evil spectrum, which is fine, but the spectrum is presented in binary terms so that the shifts are like pantomime rather than real life. Human relationships aren’t explored in much detail, simply because their confusion is necessary in order for the twist to surprise and make you gasp. The filmmaking too is ordered around the big reveal: the distanced camera angles, the blurred focussing, the obstructed shot placements, are of a singular purpose: to keep you guessing at the final twist, which marketing should’ve made you aware of. It’s a gimmicky move, and I suspect the film would grow quickly wearisome on repeat.

You see, the key to making a thriller is not just a twist, although it can’t hurt when it’s pulled off – Psycho, anyone? Hitchcock’s best films lodge inside your brain, disturb you, provoke fascinating insight into cinema and the sadism of the human soul. The Girl on the Train has only its twist, which is not enough. Upped a star for Emily Blunt’s performance, a great actress and very touching here in portraying the self-deluding, self-denying effects of alcoholism. Far too good for this daft confection.

2.0.png

ON SPOTIFY

Let Them Eat Chaos – Kate Tempest

Let_Them_Eat_Chaos_Kate_Tempest_Album_Cover_Final_grande.jpgAn extraordinary talent, Kate Tempest shatters the illusive belief that performance art is a stuffy, elitist form of entertainment for the bourgeoisie. She grew up in the squats of South East London, born to a labourer father and one of five children. Her spoken poetry aspires to reflect the shitty reality of working-class life that she knows too well, albeit with an eye for detail, dope beats and a wacky sense of humour that remove it from the realms of poverty tourism. Both literary and anti-literary, two of her favourite artists are James Joyce and the Wu-Tang Clan, which should give you some idea as to her eclecticism and ambition.

Her debut Everybody Down was sublime; Let Them Eat Chaos is even more so. It is that elusive, exciting event: a concept album which actually does cohere thematically. The album cover should give you some idea as to Tempest’s pessimistic stance, with human industry tearing the planet asunder. She imagines seven inhabitants of a block of flats in London, all of them awake at 4:18am – sleep being a luxury they can’t afford, as they count not sheep but ‘sheepish mistakes’. There’s Esther, a carer working double time who worries that ‘Europe is Lost’ but oh well, never mind, there’s 2 for 1 at the local club and ‘no one likes a party pooping spoil sport’. There’s Bradley, who’s got a good job in PR and is ‘living the dream’ but can’t seem to shake the feeling that ‘life hasn’t started’. There’s Pious, a lesbian in a one-night fling with Rose but who is lovesick for her ‘thorn’. All of these people are self-absorbed, yet understandably so, because their lives are hollow and without meaning.

But a storm is coming. In one of the most alarming moments of lyrical empathy, Tempest takes the perspective of the apocalyptic, thunderous clouds rolling in, straight out of ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘Bad Moon Rising’: ‘We are the raw waters/That caused the four horsemen’. I don’t think I need to spell out that this is an allusion to the effects of climate change. Yet instead of tearing these seven lonely people further apart, the storm acts as a unifying presence: they simultaneously open their doors and go outside to gaze up at the sky in wonder. The Tempest is coming, Kate Tempest realises, and she is hopeful that it will bring us together: ‘The myth of the individual has left us disconnected, lost and pitiful/I’m out in the rain, it’s a cold night in London/And I’m screaming at my loved ones to wake up and love more/I’m pleading with my loved ones to wake up and love more.’

Hats off to Kate, her poetry is both meaningful and direct, she raps with drama and an assured sense of the characters she portrays, and for someone whose background is far from musical she delivers enough dramatic hooks and intricate synthesised drum patterns to keep one aurally engaged. I salivate at the thought of her collaborating with more adventurous hip-hop producers, who could push her to even more transcendent heights (Birdman? West? Rubin?) – but she touches the exposed nerve of our country and planet with such dexterity that this will more than do for the moment.

4.0.png

Updated 05/12/16 (prev. 4.5 stars): It’s too easy to get overexcited when reviewing a new album. The rush of the new or the perfect encapsulation of a moment (in this case the post-Brexit shitstorm) can thrill beyond any legitimate claims to mastery. A few months on I now feel the lack of musical accomplishment hampers some of the verbal dexterity. But only some.

Album Review: American Band – Drive-By Truckers

ON SPOTIFY

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS - American band.jpgDrive-By Truckers aren’t just an American Band, they’re a great American Band. And they constantly question what it is to be American, what it is to be a band: defiantly Southern in attitude, they’re proud of their Alabaman roots, yet ashamed of some of the more unsavoury aspects of the state’s history; defiantly traditional in their musical heritage (you know the joke – they play both types of music, country AND western), they’ve nevertheless moved the idea of a country-rock band into fresh territory with an ever-shifting lineup, one which has seen acts such as Jason Isbell and his ex-wife Shonna Tucker come and go as songwriters and lead guitarists/bassists. But the core of the band has always been Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, two equally adept singer/songwriters (although Hood is more prolific), who have been concerning themselves with the lives of ordinary Southern folk for many a year now. The lives they have conjured up in their songs are rich, dark, complex, filled with duality – a challenge to simplistic portrayals of the Southern states that have been used to bolster a bitter class prejudice.

So they care about people, but not just their own people – American Band is a haunted cry of despair at the racism and gun crime fatalities plaguing the entire nation, a United States they fear isn’t remotely united. The flag at half mast on the front cover, drooping in dismay, is a tribute to the numerous casualties on the record: the young Hispanic killed by a leader of the NRA who got off scot-free (‘Ramon Casiano’), the student observing a bird before himself flying to heaven in a community college massacre (‘Guns of Umpqua’), and the 17 year old black man robbed of life by a trigger-happy white man – yes, that’s Trayvor Martin (‘What it Means’). Guns, guns, guns: destroying the peace and fabric of American society, as any one of us outside of America can clearly see, and as many decent people inside of it can see too, such as this band from the heartlands of the NRA: ‘killing’s been the bullet’s business/Since back in 1931’, as they explain in fury.

Drive-By-Truckers.jpgTheir political stance is direct, forthright, unobscure. They’re sick and tired of all of this killing, they despise how people can ‘shrug and let it happen/Without asking what it means’, they fear the rise of Trump which they know can only make things worse. Lyrics of such transparency are often sneered at by a generation raised on Radiohead and Wilco, cerebral bands that hide behind opaque metaphors which will please intellectuals but never occasion any real change. I’m not sure Drive-By Truckers will either, they exist too perpetually on the fringes of the mainstream, but in such dark times we need their plain-spoken honesty all the more because it creates a universally understood sense of urgency. If more bands followed suit, speaking directly yet intelligently to their audience about the dangers of Trump and his ilk, maybe we could start to mount a more convincing opposition (I know Trump’s currently losing in the polls, but the scale of his popularity amongst working class voters is still devastating).

What makes American Band all the more powerful a statement is the music, which is some of the best of the band’s career. Still driving and simplistic, much like their lyrics, and centred around typical guitar chord changes and a 4/4 beat, they nevertheless create stirring emotional responses from their sound. And everything signifies: try the low bass rumble of ‘Ever South’ for instance, taking the composition down south and away from the lead guitars in a vindication of their roots. Or the sarcastic boogie-woogie piano lines in ‘Kinky Hypocrite’, a song about those who ‘party harder than they like to admit’. Or the soothing piano lines of ‘Once They Banned Imagine’, which deliberately recall the John Lennon song mentioned in the title. Or, most movingly of all, the handclaps at the end of ‘What it Means’, which represent a togetherness and cautious optimism following a bleak foray into unremitting violence.

If you care about the state of the world, you might just find that you need this album in your life right now. It plumbs the depths of despair, but its very existence, the fact that it offers up support to the (mostly black) victims of gun crime, and does so from the predominantly Republican South, makes it essential. Patterson Hood has revealed in interviews his belief that: ‘there needs to be more middle-aged southern dudes saying that black lives matter.’ Amen to that.

5.0.png