Album Review: Japandroids: Near to the Wild Heart of Life (2017)

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Japandroids are one of the most focussed rock bands. Over 8 years and 3 albums they have peddled the same schtick: the duo thrash out on the guitar (Brian King) and drums (David Prowse) whilst shouting at each other, as if across a football pitch, about their life as a band on the road. Sometimes with melody.

This consistency is anathema to many music critics, who invariably expect sonic and thematic progression from bands à la Wilco or Radiohead. Forward motion is the way of the biz, and if you can’t keep up, drop out. So sayeth Pitchfork and their ilk, and though I do appreciate the excitement of an artist trying something new, I think this approach ignores some good records that don’t necessarily push the envelope but are well-made and give music junkies the adrenalin buzz they crave.

I find it pretty amusing that Japandroids have taken half a decade off in order to produce an album that focuses on very much the same sex, booze n’ touring adventures as the last one, the much-celebrated Celebration Rock, and I still think the music makes it all valid. You can feel the thrill of the rock n’ roll lifestyle. The lads have added some sheen to the production, notably in the acoustic guitars and synths on the 7-minute ‘Arc of Bar’, but its wild heart is, as ever, in the guitar-and-drums blitzkrieg assault. Each tries to bash it out louder than the other on their respective instrument, like hyper-competitive toddlers, until the chanted ‘oh!’, ‘na!’ or ‘yeah!’ of a chorus brings them together with a rowdy crash of momentum. On the third album this madcap formula still works, still generates excitement, even if the energy now comes from late 30-somethings.

Coming-of-age supposedly brings maturity, and Japandroids hint at it by referencing coming-of-age classic Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the title Near to the Wild Heart of Life. But the truth is that they had already reached maturity on their 2009 debut Post-Nothing, which began with ‘The Boys Are Leaving Town’ and contrasted that youthful promise of escape with the disillusioned chant of ‘Will we find our way back home?/I don’t know’. Songs of youth, songs of experience? They managed both at once. Clearly they learnt this trick from Bruce Springsteen, whose yearning for the open road of America and contradictorily the retreat of his own hometown has echoed throughout a fascinating career. Japandroids are not nearly as passionate, clever or funny as The Boss, but you can still see this conflicted fascination play out on their latest album: ‘I pray those yellow lines on the I-5/Bring me back home to you’ they sing on ‘Midnight to Morning’, the freedom of the road only leading their minds back home to certain loved ones.

So they explore the emotional limits of touring in a rock band, whilst never denying the stroke of liberty it has provided them with. ‘Criss-crossing the continent all aglow’ in ‘North East South West’, they are Canadian boys thrilling to traversing the American terrain – and, it is implied, its women. Yet they also recognise the exhilaration of monogamy: ‘No known drink/No known drug/Could ever hold a handle to your love’ they coo towards the end on, not coincidentally, the most musically impassioned track.

They want it both ways it seems, and they always have done: a rock n’ roll and a stable life. This explains both the 5 year break, allowing for both members to become somewhat domesticated, and the continued stadium rock euphoria of their music. Stick your hands in the air, like you really do care.

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Film Review: La La Land (2016)

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As we should all know by now, this is the film to watch out for at the Oscars: it has already swept up every award in its path, including a record haul at the Golden Globes. Audiences worldwide have been enchanted. Its magic – strictly in box office terms, of course – has calmed the nerves of Hollywood studio execs who currently have roughly twenty musicals in pre-, mid- or post-production. Twenty!

I’m pleased by this. We need more musicals in the world – they’re a great recruiting ground for young film buffs. They train people to realise that most films are not about duplicating life at all, but about imagining a better and more magical life, in which people can burst into song for no good reason – and why not? Realism be damned – in the dark of the cinema, we want to be transported ‘Over the Rainbow’.

Director Damien Chazelle realises this, and begins his film with a firm middle finger up to the realists of the world. It is a sequence in which hundreds of drivers in a traffic jam suddenly get out and start dancing on the roofs of their cars. It contains all of the joyful absurdity of, say, Gene Kelly singin’ in the rain. The tedium of daily life is transcended by the magic of film and music, working in tandem: ‘Welcome to La La Land!’

Or should it be L.A. L.A. Land? That fame-hungry city is the ‘real’ setting of this film. Magic/reality are pitted against each other in the title as they are everywhere else here.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play an aspiring jazz pianist and an aspiring actress respectively, two clichéd dreamers whom we nevertheless will to succeed. That is because, as their paths keep on crossing, they bring out the sweetness in each other as romance gives fire to their unrealised ambitions. They believe in each other, so we come to believe in them.

The pair of actors do have a certain chemistry, as seen before in Crazy, Stupid, Love and (let’s agree to forget) Gangster Squad. I believe their attraction as an onscreen couple comes from a) Stone being the smarter, funnier, and more assertive one, in a reversal of Hollywood gender norms; and b) Gosling being kind enough to be content with her domination, his masculinity so assured that he doesn’t feel the need to compete. Their ease with each other is non-combative and a satisfying model of romance to feast our eyes upon.

Which isn’t to say that their relationship, or La La Land itself, will always be an easy, relaxed ride. The second half delves into dark territory, heavily influenced by the Jacques Demy classics The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort as it explores the strain of life’s responsibilities upon the fairy-tale dreams of Love. The title keeps on asking us: La La Land or L.A. L.A. Land?

Damien Chazelle is particularly alert to the struggles of young artists to achieve deserved success (see also Whiplash), which seems to stem from frustrations early on in his own career.

But he has become so obsessed with this theme that in La La Land he neglects the most important aspect of all: the music. Justin Hurwitz’s score is allowed to be flawed and unmemorable. And I say that after having listened to the soundtrack on and off for a week. This is a severe disappointment in a film explicitly modelled on the great Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and 50s, with their bevy of extraordinary songwriters (Gershwin! Porter! Berlin! Rodgers!). Because how are we supposed to fly off to La La Land when the songs are rooted in mediocrity?

Earlier today I caught myself humming a tune from the film. Only a moment later I realised that it was ‘Take on Me’. That was what had stuck in my mind. Oh dear.

When dealing with the basic elements of film, Chazelle is on fine form: the cameras swoop gracefully to capture the smooth dance routines, all of the costumes and set designs are garishly colourful and impressive, and the editing is slick and witty. But his failure to attach it all to a worthy soundtrack shows a lack of understanding of the musical form, which is fatal when your film happens to be a pastiche of that genre.

So let’s just say that as a film-lover, I’m impressed. But as a music-lover, I’m disappointed.

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Album Review: The xx: I See You (2017)

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Intros can be pretty useful in stating an album’s purpose, as no band should understand better than The xx. The ‘Intro’ from their debut album, released in 2009, heralded a brand new wave of downbeat indie with its slow-motion collision course of hushed guitars, synths, and drum sequencers. It would come to define that album’s quietly revolutionary approach.

Their second album, Coexist, was released in 2012 and its intro was a reverb-laden guitar lead muffled by the deep silence surrounding it – a familiar trick of the band’s. It would come to define that album’s levelled accusations of stagnation, which were hard to deny in many respects, even if it was evidently ‘cornier’ than the debut (read: ‘happier’).

Their third album, I See You, will also come to be defined by its intro. It begins with horns playing a sequence that sounds eerily similar to Rihanna’s intro for ‘Woo’, and then quickly lurches into louder, tougher drum syncopations than the band have ever dabbled in before. We’re in for something different, and we’re hooked.

Of course, anyone who has been paying attention will know that it’s not a complete departure for all of the band: in 2015 producer/synth-and-drums-meister Jamie xx released his solo debut, In Colour, a DJ set that included enough dancefloor bangers to get on the nerves of electro-aesthete purists. But its up-tempo beats sounded just fine to crude pop fans, such as myself, and the album’s success gave Jamie the chance to bring his voracious aural appetite to the table this time around with The xx.

Their sound has always been famous for its lack of wasted space, pared down to the bare-boned musical essentials, and impressively I See You maintains that quality-control even whilst piling up multi-layered vocals and sound effects on the tracks. The use of samples, over which much fuss has already been made, are typically limited to moments where they are most needed: Hall & Oates answering the band’s disquiet with ‘Where does it stop?’ on lead single ‘On Hold’, Alessia warning them to say something loving ‘before it slips away’, Trio Mediaeval offering sexual advice on the audacious ‘Lips’.

The samples are not remotely exploitative: they are a way of communicating with the past, and their musical heros offer some sage advice on how to overcome the romantic insecurities that have always been a mainstay of their music.

Singer/songwriters Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft have warmly embraced Jamie’s need to push the band into upbeat territory. As Croft sings in her distinct quavering tones: ‘A rush of blood is not enough/I need my feelings set on fire’. In real life she’s recently become engaged to visual artist Hannah Marshall, which may explain the explicit need for passion in the lyrics. At any rate, the music responds by dynamically igniting the rhythm section and piling on live string accompaniment throughout. The xx have never been afraid of a little romanticism, so this album’s move towards melodrama feel unforced and only occasionally excessive (‘Brave For You’ is a little mawkish).

No song here is as gorgeous or immediate as ‘VCR’ or ‘Islands’ from their debut, but I See You is a classic grower. Play it once or twice and it will fade unnoticed into the background. Yet play it once or twice more and its brave, unironic emotionalism will suddenly have you punching the air.

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Film Review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

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Ben Affleck is the A-lister we all know, and some love. But anyone who cares about modern film will be aware of the fact that younger brother Casey has been outshining him at almost every turn. Not blessed with the cheekbones of a Greek God, Casey has needed to compensate in other areas, and work much harder to succeed. For which all of us mere mortals can be thankful.

Ben has coasted through most often dreary material, reflexively unwilling to drop his cool exterior and explore any inner depth, whilst Casey has kept on pushing into oddball, revealing territory: a youth turned on by Nicole Kidman and then murder in To Die For, a horrendous sadist in The Killer Inside Me, a stalker starstruck by yet another God-like figure, Brad Pitt, in The Assassination of Jesse James.

Now add to that fascinating list Manchester by the Sea, his finest two hours onscreen.

Casey plays Lee Chandler, a down-and-out janitor living solitarily in Boston. Right from the off we are alerted to something askew in his personality: drinking alone at a bar, a woman uses the classic icebreaker of ‘accidentally’ spilling a drink over him. She is quite pretty and has taken the risk to initiate conversation. His response?

Nothing.

That word is key to Lee’s character – he shies away from anything that might come to define him in the eyes of others. He tries to avoid social encounters, although we don’t get the impression that the reason for this is shyness. He prefers to appear an empty vessel, even if it means he won’t get laid, for reasons that are hard to decipher. We soon find out that he’s the sort of guy who goes to bars not to pick up women but to pick fights – because you don’t need to converse with another man’s fists.

Little can we imagine the true terror that has sparked Lee’s cloistered existence, a tragedy which forms the devastating heart of this rich, emotive film.

Casey Affleck is totally convincing as a man ground to a halt by grief, and he deserves all of the awards heading his way (already begun with a Best Actor gong at the Golden Globes). I am greatly encouraged by the Oscars buzz, because that award so often goes to actors who can’t help but chew on scenery. Here the scenery is the very ocean itself, and yet Affleck still tries to hide behind it.

The sea is a symbol of hope, regeneration and freedom in many films – think of the finales of The Truman Show and last year’s Sing Street, for instance, where crossing it promises a new life and real adventure. But here it is stifling: Lee is forced to move to the coastal town of Manchester after he unexpectedly becomes custodial guardian to sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick. He has lived there before, and it is where his terrible tragedy occurred. It is a site of unspeakable pain, so the surrounding sea serves as a claustrophobic reminder that he is trapped – not at all liberating, then. It is a reminder that there is no escape from the past.

This is the great theme of director Kenneth Lonergan’s filmography. Guilt and regret emanating from the past are the founding blocks of You Can Count on Me and Margaret, films which also hem their characters into unwanted lives.

Yet before you dismiss any of them as too glum-sounding, note that Lonergan is so finely attuned to human flaws that he has figured out a way in which to mine them for equal parts humour and tragedy. Just like You Can Count on Me, Manchester by the Sea sees the troubled leading man humanised by a surprising uncle-nephew relationship in which any of his shortcomings are matched by an undeniable warmth. This blessedly allows you to laugh at many of these shortcomings, especially when said nephew (brilliantly played here by twenty-year-old Lucas Hedges – watch out for him) has a sardonic comeback for every one.

The film itself has very few shortcomings. Too-brief roles for Michelle Williams (outstanding as ever as Lee’s ex-wife), Kyle Chandler (Lee’s brother), and Matthew Broderick (Patrick’s future father-in-law) stand out. But that’s because they are so engagingly sketched out, in only a few minutes of screentime, that we want more from them. Never in this 140 minute film do we want to see less.

My very great admiration for Manchester by the Sea continues beyond the completion of its running time: I can’t shake its deep, humane sadness. I don’t think that it is safe or comforting enough to have a shot at Best Picture glory with the Academy. But who cares? Its open ending is a glaring reminder that the worst kinds of grief are an ever-open wound, stretching before us like the wide and unstoppable sea.

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