Angaleena Presley: Wrangled (2017) – Album Review

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Angaleena Presley wants to be ‘Elvis but with lipstick and boobs’, and not just because of the shared surname. Her great desire’s to be a ‘straight-shootin’, highfalutin’ rider on the hit brigade’ much like the King in his prime. But so far commercial success hasn’t been forthcoming, and unlike, say, Kurt Cobain, this outlier status on the charts doesn’t please her. In fact she feels like she’s been Wrangled.

‘I don’t know that anyone wakes up and sets out to be an underdog – you just kind of are,’ she explained to Rolling Stone in an interview. Here in Britain we love a good underdog, which might explain why I’m so moved by this album – I know that Angaleena deserves the mainstream acceptance she craves, and so I’m deeply affected by ‘Groundswell’ for instance, which has her performing in Georgia one rainy night and praying that the t-shirts and records will sell. It’s a keen reminder of just how hard it is to make a living from music these days, at least when you’re not attaining U2 or Ed Sheeran levels of sales. Which must be frustrating when you’re far more gifted than either of them.

And she is! That voice is supple; it bends around the ballads without ever descending into mawkishness, and it unloads bucketloads of humour and quiet sass onto the up-tempo moments. As track after track hits home, the consistency displayed on her (highly recommended) debut American Middle Class is duplicated, showing it not to be a fluke. Her grasp of melody and country music’s extremely satisfying, radically simple mixture of ‘three chords and the truth’ – which goes straight under the inflated heads of the snobs over at Pitchfork, who barely ever review country albums – places her at or near the top of a strong pack of female artists working in Nashville today (Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Sunny Sweeney, Lori McKenna, Margo Price… the list of sharp, mega-talented gals goes on, all of them putting the chart-busting bros to shame).

She’s also strong on lyrics, another reason to cherish this album. Presley and her team of co-writers come up with surprise after surprise. On the title track she acknowledges that the ‘Bible says a woman oughta know her place’, before turning that implied sexism on its head by revealing that ‘mine’s out here in the middle of all of this wide open space’. Reminds me of the breaking free onto the US plains of Thelma & Louise, and it has the same feminist connotations. Meanwhile on the chorus of the comic highlight ‘Bless My Heart’ she tells a particularly irksome Southern belle ‘you’re a beauty mark on the human race’, before following it up with ‘and if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face.’ And in the most shocking twist of all, the promise that ‘Only Blood’ can set you free, which at first means the bloodline of family, suddenly takes on a darker meaning as a wife greets the homecoming of her piece of shit of a husband with a pistol. You never know when Presley will pull the rug out from underneath someone, stamping on their head and your expectations.

As you can probably tell from these examples, Angaleena might be shackled and wrangled by various obnoxious characters, particularly men, and she might be disappointed by her relative lack of success, but she’s not defeated. Never. The arc of the album goes from a pained admission that ‘Dreams Don’t Come True’ to an encouragement later on from Guy Clark to ‘Cheer Up Little Darling’ (in the last writing credit of his life), to a final insistence that you can never keep a ‘Good Girl Down’, no matter what bullshit they might face together as a gender. And as the album moves towards its happy ending of sorts, it picks up momentum: the final two tracks rock the hardest of the bunch, and indeed harder than any other sequence of music I’ve heard so far this year. Yeehaw!

Believe me, she’s a good girl down to the bone. Yelawolf might bemoan all the posers on the country chart and say ‘thank God for Sturgill Simpson’, but really that should be ‘thank God for Angaleena Presley’.

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The Handmaiden (2016) – Film Review

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An adaptation of Sarah Waters’ acclaimed Victorian-era erotic thriller Fingersmith, The Handmaiden transposes the action to Japanese-occupied Korea in the 1930s. Directed by Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Stoker), who also worked on the adapted screenplay, this is a big step up for a director mostly known before for his highly stylised scenes of ultraviolence. Like far too many talented directors, Chan-wook’s technical audacity has been squandered away on an obsession with gratuitous gore and cold, empty characterisations that, filmed in the right lighting, are perceived as Art by easily duped critics. He has shown more sympathy for the mechanics of vengeance than, say, real people, which I’ve always found disconcerting.

Which makes The Handmaiden all the more of a surprise. It’s not just beautifully photographed, evocatively scored, and sumptuously designed (in sets, lighting, colour, make-up and all other departments). It’s not just unusually gripping and tense from beginning to end, like no other film I’ve seen this year. It’s also a major, accomplished piece of humane filmmaking. Thrillingly driven by a myriad of emotions, of which vengeance is thankfully but a minor one, the characters here live and breathe in three dimensions, they have complex and contradictory webs of desire, and they act in consistently surprising ways. It’s Chan-wook’s first novel-on-film, as opposed to a shop-of-horrors designed expressly to shock.

He gets some great performances from the leads. Kim Tae-ri flitters between hysteria and calm as Sook-hee, a pickpocket hired by the con artist Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) to act as handmaiden to Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and convince her to marry him. Hideko is a fabulously wealthy orphan, and it’s the fortune rather than the woman that the Count is after. So the pre-hatched plan is to send Hideko off to a mental asylum shortly after they marry and then split the stolen dowry with Sook-hee. But human foibles get in the way. Hideko starts to fall in love with Sook-hee, not the Count, which complicates the double-crossing at play. And Sook-hee in turn falls for Hideko. Or does she…?

As The Handmaiden progresses we are shown the same crucial scenes of wooing and lovemaking from the perspective of different characters, and it has the disorientating (but thrilling) effect that our assumptions concerning who is ‘performing’ in the romantic and sexual liaisons of the three main characters are continually readjusted. Love and sex are two areas in life where the strong-willed can be reduced to weakness, and as such they are powerful tools to be used in manipulating others. As the plot twists and turns, we begin to question whether the purity of love or sex can ever exist at all, or whether there will always be an element of performance to them. The pivotal sex scene between Sook-hee and Hideko, for example, starts with them pretending to be man and wife on their wedding night, so are we to believe that the grunts and groans which follow are genuine, or are they all just a part of the scene’s role-playing? Is Sook-hee preparing Hideko for her first night with the Count, or is she enacting her own desires upon this beautiful woman beneath her? Can there ever be a complete connection between lust and love, we wonder?

The film bravely poses an answer to all of these questions in its final scene, which of course I won’t dare to spoil. But look out for it, and consider its meaning very carefully. I believe the ending is the most audacious and inspiring thing that Chan-wook has yet committed to film, and even if it comes directly from Sarah Waters’ book, the boldness required to bring it to life onscreen is remarkable.

Still, the film is not perfect: Chan-wook can’t resist a lengthy scene of grizzly torture, which clearly gives him as much of a hard-on as the sex scenes, what with its lavish close-ups of mutilation. I’ve heard nary a word about this particular scene in the press’s lengthy discussions on the film’s morality, a dispiriting example of how violence is perceived as more ‘normal’ in the world of film than sex. People will sit quietly through scenes of the most excessive bloodletting and be unperturbed, yet lose their shit when they see two naked women getting it on.

Indeed, there has been some criticism that the explicit scenes of lesbian lovemaking are an uncomfortable example of male wish-fulfillment fantasy rather than an ode to female liberation, because they’re filmed by a guy director. To these accusations I would reply that not only were these scenes far more explicit in the original novel, Fingersmith, but also that the author herself gave this film her seal of approval, demonstrating that Chan-wook has stayed close to the spirit of his source material rather than indulging in his own masturbatory fantasies (though of course he could be doing both, at least he’s not doing the latter in any unjustifiably excessive way).

Taken overall the film is a resplendent celebration of female sexuality, and this couldn’t be clearer. Even in this day and age, that’s an astonishingly rare thing to find in cinema (it’s more frequent in pop music, one of the main reasons I’ve become attracted to that form above film in recent years). Most art films are so eager to prove their smarts and tell us something downbeat about humanity that they forget the main reason why we have sex: because it’s fun. I recently watched Raw, a horror film that is being applauded on the arthouse circuit for linking sexual awakening to cannibalism, without anyone acknowledging how deeply, deeply silly that concept is even on a surface level – cannibalism is an aberration in human nature, whereas sex is a universal part of it, so equating them doesn’t make much sense at all.

Stick to The Handmaiden, which is a film about fucking that’s the real deal: sex as pleasure, as performance, sometimes as manipulation, but most importantly, when it’s good, as love.

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Kendrick Lamar: DAMN. (2017) – Album Review

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Rap is the most exciting musical genre on the planet right now, and Kendrick Lamar is easily one of its most exciting young talents. Yet the hype stirred up on Twitter and beyond by this album’s release has been beyond ridiculous – he’s been compared to Gandhi in some quarters, to Jesus in others (the Easter Sunday ‘resurrection’ album that fans predicted and, er, mysteriously never materialised).

As anyone who’s ever listened closely to K.Dot’s lyrics will know, he’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy: ‘Put the Bible down and go eye for an eye for this shit’ goes one line on this album; ‘I’ll prolly die at these house parties fuckin’ with bitches’ goes another. These are enough to give any Fox News anchor a brain haemorrhage, but they’re true to the language of the street, and they’re true to the cultural world of hip-hop from which Kendrick emerges – for better and worse. More importantly, these blunt depictions of street life contrast with the regular doses of decency and thoughtfulness offered up by the Good Kid in the M.A.A.D City: ‘pride’s gonna be the death of you and me’ he worries at one point, in a self-reminder to always be humble; at another he sweetly tells a girl that he respects ‘the cat’ and asks politely to put his head in it. ‘It’s okay,’ she replies.

The values learnt on the streets of Compton, those of violence and braggadocio, come square up against the values of the church, with its promise that the meek will inherit the earth, again and again on DAMN. ‘PRIDE’ and ‘HUMBLE’ appear next to each other in the tracklist (interestingly ‘PRIDE’ is more about humility and ‘HUMBLE’ is a boast track), as do ‘LUST’ and ‘LOVE’, as do ‘FEAR’ and ‘GOD’, to hammer home the internal conflicts at play. No simple moraliser, Kendrick is always willing, eager even, to admit his own faults and hypocrisies, much like a certain Kanye. Yet it all culminates in ‘DUCKWORTH’, a real-life street narrative involving an incident many years ago where record label CEO Anthony ‘Top Dawg’ Triffith nearly killed Kendrick’s father. That Kendrick and Anthony can now work with each other in the studio demonstrates the redemptive power of music in a hopeless world of cynical violence, absolving any former beefs with a joining together of creative powers. It offers a way out of the endless cycle of pointless street killings. It offers hope.

All of which is fascinating and compelling, a psychological and spiritual puzzle of the highest order, which makes the 5 star raves to have greeted this album not only predictable but also understandable. Still… let’s calm down, take a deep breath, and assess DAMN.’s success with equanimity, shall we?

We all know that Kendrick can spit bars like an AK-47, pen rhymes like a bard, spin tracks like a wizard – he’s one of the most talented musicians around, for sure. So I expect more from him than what’s on offer here, a slapdash mess of intermittent brilliance that comes closer to the chaos of untitled unmastered. than the coherence of a masterpiece like GKMC or TPAB. Those highlights had a clear sonic identity that emerged from their overall concepts. So the downbeat atmospherics that seeped through GKMC perfectly conveyed that album’s melancholic portrayal of a boy exhausted with the thug life in Compton; and the extraordinary jazz-funk party of TPAB contributed immensely to that career-high’s celebration of black culture. With DAMN. the only concept that seems to exist is that of trying to please everyone at once, blatantly following Drake into trap’s subgenre marketplace on most tracks, in a concession to his more commercial fanbase, whilst simultaneously juggling elements of less danceable electronica, and throwing in some live instrumentation from old faves like dynamite bassist Thundercat on ‘FEEL’, and strings arranged by Kamasi Washington on ‘LUST’, to appeal to the more traditionally minded (i.e. ‘real’ music snobs).

Kendrick has reached that rarefied station of upper-echelon artistic acclaim (see also Beatles, Dylan, Springsteen, Radiohead) where everything he does is immediately cited as proof of his genius, hence why many publications have already been claiming the musical eclecticism on DAMN. to be an example of the man’s restless desire to push into new territory. But to my ears, and I listen to albums a lot, it sounds more like the result of a lack of clear focus, and a petrifying fear of alienating various factions of his fanbase. He readily admits to his ‘fear of losin’ creativity’ on ‘FEAR’, and it shows. Especially in his tendency to switch up beats purely for the ‘WOW!’ factor, some time before they’ve had a chance to fully establish a groove. The technical mastery on display is sometimes not genius, it’s just showing off – opting for form over content, in the same way that bad guitarists do in the dick-waving look-at-me solos of the heavy metal scene.

That said, there’s always a moment on every track that makes me sit up and go damn, and usually there’s more than one. Whether it’s the Al Green falsetto sleezing up ‘LUST’, the thrill of the delivery justifying the self-satisfaction of the sentiment on ‘DNA’, the lurching between thwomping electronic beats and a minimalist(!) U2 on ‘XXX’, going all psychedelic soul on our asses on ‘PRIDE’, or riding a mutated Bruno Mars sample with Rihanna on ‘LOYALTY’, I’m so often engaged and enthused as a listener that it carries away all care of the overall chaos. And it’s my pleasure to announce that one track is a genuinely poppy R&B ballad that is wholly and unironically about love, which should annoy all the right people – namely those who believe that Kendrick’s greatness lies within his supposed links to the ‘avant-garde’ (i.e. white hipsters).

His greatness lies elsewhere, namely in a fervent desire to hold on, at all costs, to some sort of concept, romantic or religious or otherwise, of ‘LOVE’. Even in the face of unspeakable violence, the endless cesspool of racial injustice, deplorable political figureheads… and his own monstrous ego. A deservedly monstrous ego, emanating as it does from the towering proportions of his quite undeniable, virtually irrepressible brilliance.

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Conor Oberst: Salutations (2017) – Album Review

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I’m such a fan of Conor Oberst’s alternately acid/alkali lyrics (scourging his enemies or scouring his own thoughts) that I enjoyed last year’s solo acoustic set Ruminations when I reviewed it, whereas many critics understandably didn’t. Too dirge-like, sure, but melodic enough to carry a sympathetic listener away regardless. Salutations, in contrast, is warm and welcoming to all, a full band brought in to beef up the sound and add a community atmosphere to the 10 songs originally featured on Ruminations, with 7 new ones tossed in for good measure. The backing band consists of young folk-rock maestros The Felice Brothers and 74 year-old drummer Jim Keltner, who more than holds his own in these sessions at twice Oberst’s age, and they all sound attuned to the auteur’s every warble. I agree with AllMusic and Robert Christgau that what impresses most this time around is the musicality and confident attitudinising, as opposed to the painful depths of the lyrics that were the highlight on Ruminations. When targeting Ronald Reagan on ‘A Little Uncanny’, with full band now in tow, it serves the ex-President a stinging slap to the face. Yet not all the songs benefit from the remodelling, and perhaps a few could have done with cutting from the overdosed 67 minute running time – did we really need ‘Tachycardia’ and ‘You All Loved Him Once’ yet again in this setting? Still, hard to complain all that much when you have stonking new songs such as ‘Napalm’ and ‘Anytime Soon’, which sound more Dylan than Dylan has in many a year. I’ll still play Ruminations at midnight when feeling blue. But most of the day is not comprised of midnight’s dark, luckily, and so for that reason we have all been given Salutations.

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The New Pornographers: Whiteout Conditions (2017) – Album Review

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A well-named band: they provide all of the instant-gratification of pornography, it’s just that the testosterone rush comes from pop hooks and quick tempos rather than exploitation. Hurrah for them, especially when the band is as gender-balanced as it is – in contrast to pornography’s submissive women, backup and sometime lead vocalists Neko Case and Kathryn Calder come on strong and keep getting stronger. Focus on the ‘New’, i.e. progressive.

That said, the star of the show is and always has been A.C. Newman, lead singer and now sole songwriter following the departure of Dan Bejar (never a patch on him anyway). Bejar would often throw curveballs at the Pornographers’ records – see his ‘Spidyr’ on Brill Bruisers, which murmured dully along until suddenly letting loose on a freakish harmonica solo. These oddball Bejarisms were fun but didn’t always sit well with Newman’s more classically structured pop songs, so it comes as no surprise that Whiteout Conditions is the band’s most consistent album yet.

11 songs in 40 minutes, it’s as short and snappy as any great pop record should be. Compactness is the name of the game, and that applies as much to Newman’s 3-4 minute songwriting as to new drummer Joe Seider’s unfussy tempo-keeping and fills. In fact, Seider’s stability is a major asset here, demonstrating its importance through his absence on the album’s worst track, ‘We’ve Been Here Before’, which sounds aimless but you don’t know why, until the drums kick back in again on ‘Juke’ and you realise that’s why.

Up high in the mix with the percussion are the keyboards and a whole host of synthesizers, continuing the band’s fascination with Kraturock and 80s pop demonstrated on their last album, Brill Bruisers. Further moving away from the straight-up rock of their early releases (at least relatively straight-up – their influences were always eclectic), you have to concentrate hard to discern the guitars, which are drowned beneath waves of other electronic instruments. In the codas to each song, as the synths invariably dominate, you could say that they sound more like New Order than New Pornographers. But the band maintains a clear identity throughout, especially on ‘Second Sleep’, where the chopped and sampled vocals of the gal singers go beyond New Order’s chilly textures to find the humour lurking underneath.

Some highlights: barnstormer ‘High Ticket Attractions’, which plays the male and female vocalists off each other to generate mucho excitement (a trick deployed many times on this album, but never more effectively); ‘Colosseums’, which somehow incorporates a marimba seamlessly into the electro-pop groove; ‘Clockwise’, which perhaps has the snakiest synth riff of the lot, biting mischievously at the drums. Generally, though, the individual tunes don’t stand out as well as the overall consistency of playful sound, which is the main reason that you’ll want to return to the album.

The words are the main flaw here. Newman sometimes creates a likeable impression as a lyricist, one who is honest enough to admit ‘I only play for money, honey’ and manages to talk about his battles with depression in revealing terms (on the title track). But if the overall concept is how to write, perform and tour in a successful band, whilst pushing all personal demons aside, then it only occasionally piques any interest in the lifestyle. Ultimately, a touring band is closed off from the rest of the world, and it shows here.

As mentioned before though, the main reason you’ll want to spin Whiteout Conditions is the fast-paced, optimistic noise it offers up to soothe your soul. It manages to avoid Krautrock pastiche through sheer enthusiasm and vigour, which is as admirable an achievement as any I’ve witnessed in pop music all year.

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Orchestra Baobab: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (2017) – Album Review

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Of all the great musicians to have passed in 2016, perhaps the least remarked upon, unsurprisingly, was Ndiouga Dieng, one of the lead singers of the legendary Senegalese collective Orchestra Baobab. Here is his heartfelt tribute, in the form of another superb album from what remains of the band.

Orchestra Baobab formed in Dakar in the early 70s, just as Latin dance music was starting to make an impact on West Africa. The music was brought over on records with western colonialists (a rare kind gesture) and immediately spoke to the rhythmically minded local musicians, whose innovations had in turn helped to inspire the Cuban son and other Caribbean dance crazes several decades ago.

The result of this cross-pollination was Orchestra Baobab’s Afro-Cuban fusion style, owing in equal parts to each tradition. Their enormous success at the club level in Senegal paved the way for mbalax and Youssou N’Dour’s meteoric rise to international fame. Yet as N’Dour’s star rose, so did Baobab’s fall, not helped by the death of their original griot singer Laye Mboup in 1974. So they called it a day in the early 80s, after recording the now-classic Pirates Choice.

That would’ve been the end were it not for Nick Gold, head of World Circuit, who along with no other than Youssou N’Dour produced 2002’s spectacular comeback album Specialist in All Styles, which finally brought Baobab the international acclaim they’d always been denied, interestingly by rerecording old 70s and 80s hits with higher production values. 2007’s Made in Dakar repeated the same trick, and repeated their acclaim, but then again afterwards there was… silence.

Until now. Drawn out of their decade-long retirement by the death of Dieng (presumably) this ‘tribute’ is hardly morose – it’s the upbeat groove record we’ve come to expect from the band. There are still the other lead singers to play off each other in Wolof and French, ululating with a joy that transcends language. And there is still the prominently mixed percussion, grounding everything in a syncopation that lets you know just how this music is meant to be heard: in the process of dancing. Dancing quite awkwardly, if you’re as white and British as I am.

One marked change is that most of these tracks are originals (the exception is ‘Sey’) for the first time in 35 years. The continuity of these songs, in terms of quality, from past offerings demonstrates the continued success of their cohesiveness as a unit, despite the loss of certain group members.

Indeed another sad loss is long-time guitarist Barthelemy Attisso, who chose to pursue a law career in his native Togo rather than carry on with the Orchestra, meaning that he’s been replaced with a kora player for the first time. The hole left by Attisso is a big one – his electric musings on guitar, walking the tightrope between continental musical styles, were always a highlight, and what’s more his interest in American rock stylings (wah-wah pedal particularly) gave western listeners an accessible aural entry point.

Yet gone he is, and Abdouleye Cissoko’s kora playing is therefore what comes to define the sound of the new record. Unfortunately, the instrument is presented without accompaniment on ‘Mariama’, a track that comes halfway through and kills the album’s momentum with its air of faux-mysticism. But on other songs – when its elegant strings are used to jack up the groove by sprinkling fairy dust on the infectious saxophone chants, for instance, or surrounding and massaging the rhythm guitar – the results are magic. I love how its descending patterns augment the conguera in ‘Douga’, and Cissoko’s solo in ‘Magnokouto’ is quite something to behold.

If there is a spirituality to be found in music (I’m doubtful), it’s probably to be found in the physical forcefulness of dance music and not the ponderous mysticism presented in a few tracks here. But preconceptions are always meant to be challenged, and my scepticism regarding the kora is indeed shattered on the last track. Here the instrument, again without accompaniment, works up a sweat all on its own and firmly holds the attention for the admittedly short running time. I still prefer horns-drums-guitars Baobab, but you can never deny that the group really are specialists in all world music styles.

So all that remains to be said is this: long live the Orchestra Baobab, no matter what their present or future line-up might be. Make sure to buy this album and, oh my, go and see them live if you possibly can.

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