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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



City of Ghosts (2017) – Film Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


American Epic: The Sessions (2017) – Album Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Big Sick (2017) – Film Review


Rom-coms are often dismissed as ‘guilty pleasures’ and fail to get much critical recognition, so it’s nice to see that this one has reversed the trend. As someone who believes that the notion of ‘guilty pleasures’ should’ve been binned the very moment that Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden (or the moment that western countries spurned Christian cultural hegemony, take your pick), I say if you like something, then you should say it loud and like it proud.

So yes, I like rom-coms: Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally…, Four Weddings and a Funeral, (500) Days of Summer… These are some of my most-cherished and -watched films; easygoing, yet with more than a smidgeon of bite, like an autumn breeze or a chilled cocktail.

And when I ask myself why I like rom-coms so much, the answer always comes easily: romance and comedy, a.k.a. laughs, are two of the things that most make life worth living. Woody Allen admits as much in that famous scene in Manhattan, and so in its own way does The Big Sick.

Comedy and romance intertwine with refreshing ease in The Big Sick, and both are elements that combine to threaten the traditional Muslim values of Kumail Nanjiani’s family in the film. Kumail is a Pakistani living in Chicago, in his own flat, but beholden to his parents, who live close by and try to set him up with a new Pakistani woman every time he comes for dinner, and who also believe that he eventually intends to enroll in law school. Law being a respectable trade, unlike the stand-up career he so craves, and arranged marriage to Pakistani women being a continuation of their culture, unlike the dating of a nerdy white chick called Emily, with whom he quickly falls in love.

The ‘guilty pleasures’ of comedy and romance in Kumail’s life are therefore kept a secret from his parents, just as we are supposed to keep the ‘guilty pleasure’ of liking rom-coms to ourselves.

Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself (this is largely a true story), is too smart and decent to really believe that he should be guilty about any of his pleasures, which of course is why he’s made a movie about them. But he’s also decent enough to worry about the ways in which his parents might hurt if they found out. Of course these secrets are partly selfish though, because he doesn’t want to lose his parents or his freedom, and unwittingly these secrets might be damaging his otherwise healthy relationship with Emily (played admirably by Zoe Kazan – unusually for a male-directed rom-com, we get a strong sense of why she likes him).

Then the film takes a darker turn, with Kumail and Emily separating, shortly before she falls ill and is put into a medically induced coma. Kumail admirably chooses to stay by her side throughout treatment, but this leads to a hospitalised Meet the Parents scenario as her mother (Holly Hunter, excellent as always) and father (Ray Romano, amusing or alarming?) air their own dirty laundry in front of him, whilst they all wait to see if Emily will ever recover.

This adds a bittersweet tinge to the usual Judd Apatow Productions antics: yes there’s lots of swearing, frank sexual talk and bodily fluids gags, mindless chatter. But there’s also a genuine, unforced tenderness exuding from these oddballs in love, particularly the way in which Kumail dutifully attends his beau in her time of need, and when he’s least wanted.

The film also tackles Islamophobia, at least in passing, and has a good stab at examining the ways in which lack of trust can sweep toxically through a relationship. So it’s meaningful, as well as frequently very funny (if never laugh-out-loud). Which altogether allows one to forgive the usual Judd Apatow-affiliated problems, from issues with pacing in the third act to one-dimensional supporting characters (leading to accusations of the film having an issue with Muslim women, which I think are overstated).

I don’t think this will have the endless replay value of any of the other rom-coms I’ve mentioned above. But it’s nevertheless a charming, engaging, and exceptionally likeable ride. I would’ve called it the best Apatow production since Bridesmaids, had I not recently caught the series Love on Netflix – check The Big Sick out first, then proceed to that little gem, if you haven’t already.


Margo Price: Weakness (2017) – Album Review

Weakness EP.png

Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was the most promising country debut of last year: warm, sincere, literate, open, and very well crafted. Now she opens up this four-track quickie EP with: ‘Sometimes I’m Virginia Woolf/Sometimes I’m James Dean’. With that, I’m sold. Interestingly, despite being only 15 minutes, Weakness sees her stretching out, particularly in the 6 minute ‘Paper Cowboy’, which starts off as a subdued 3/4 waltz dirge and finishes as a stonking 4/4 jam session in which her band show off their chops: the bass carefully goosesteps around some ace pedal steel guitar lines (from Luke Schneider) and solos that come straight at you out of 70s classic rock and 60s psychedelia. It surely is a lot of fun, and complemented by the title track’s more conventional country lament set to a rollicking tune, it sets up a promising outlook to Price’s future projects. Undermined slightly by ‘Just Like Love’, a far from invigorating number produced with a melancholy quietude that sadly exposes Price’s vocal lack of subtlety – she should do some research on Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, and Sunny Sweeney, to find out how these minor-key moments can be done properly. Which is only to say that in this killer time for country ladies, perhaps the greatest ever, Price will need to step up her game in order to stand out. But then the final track, ‘Good Luck (For Ben Eyestone)’, convinces me that she might have a fair shot: a piano-led tribute to a friend of hers who died of cancer, a 28 year-old drummer, which through tiny inflections manages to mediate a sense of loss whilst bypassing histrionics. It’s a keenly felt moment that tells us much about death. Perhaps as much as the tragedies of Virginia Woolf or James Dean, two sad lives I hope Price will never really try to emulate.


Randy Newman: Dark Matter (2017) – Album Review


This is the best Randy Newman album since 2008’s Harps and Angels – which is not saying much, seeing as Harps and Angels was his last album. But it’s also saying a lot: that Randy Newman is nothing short of the most consistent albums artist of his generation, biding his time and releasing near-perfect works once a decade for the benefit of us who know him for more than just the Pixar soundtracks that have made his fortune.

It opens with three of his all-time greatest satires. First up is the 8 minute display of genius ‘The Great Debate’, in which science is put up on trial against religion and comes out losing 3-0 because, and this joke kills every time, a gospel choir keeps butting in to declare: ‘I’ll take Jesus every time!’ And when Mr. Randy Newman himself, a long-standing and well-known atheist, is called to the stand and accused of using straw men arguments in his songs to mock religion… well, I can’t quite convey how ingenious the comic value is, you must simply hear it for yourself. Then comes ‘Brothers’, with the novel idea that John and Bob Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs in order to rescue Celia Cruz and bring her back to America, perhaps a little like the slave trader who wanted to rescue poor Africans in ‘Sail Away’. And then there’s ‘Putin’, which mocks that awful leader with a precision that becomes all the sharper if you listen to it whilst browsing through these recently released macho photos of him on holiday in Siberia. ‘Makes me wanna be a lady!’ indeed.

As is par for the course with any new Randy Newman album, the somewhat grotesque satires that adorn Dark Matter have been met with bafflement by some (there are people who still believe that ‘Short People’ is a genuine attack on midgets), which is excusable for casual listeners, but for critics who get paid to listen closely it’s unforgivable. This review in The Observer really irked me, complaining that ‘Putin’ ‘pokes way too gentle fun at Russia’s dark lord’, which makes me wonder if they noticed the line ‘He can power a nuclear reactor/With the left side of his brain’ at all, but also demonstrates their lack of understanding of the way in which Newman’s best songs work. Like a good Louis Theroux documentary, they seek to humanise monstrous men, including racists and misogynists and slave traders, so as to get our brains actively questioning any assumptions we might hold about them, without ever denying their essential awfulness. We want to know why his characters are bad people, not to be told that they’re bad people, which would be the sign of a lesser songwriter.

Worse, there’s this misreading of ‘The Great Debate’ on Exclaim: ‘The whole thing is musically scattershot, and only follows a logical thread if you can entangle where Newman is being earnest and where he’s not’. Newman’s earnestness is really irrelevant: like any great satirist from Jonathan Swift to Trey Parker/Matt Stone, he deliberately obscures where he’s coming from in order to skewer the pretensions of both sides of the argument at hand, in this case science vs. religion. Good satire shouldn’t take sides, at least not overtly – that’s for propaganda.

Accusing it of being ‘musically scattershot’ meanwhile is no less simple-minded. Really that should be changed to ‘musically complex’, and I’m sure you’d agree that musical complexity is no bad thing when the complexities massage the jokes and tease out hidden ironies. As they do all over Dark Matter, for example when an Americanised version of Cuban dance music strikes up as the Kennedys start yapping on about Celia Cruz on ‘Brothers’. Or when the Putin Girls pop up as backup singers to prop up the leader’s tenuous ego on his song. Or when ‘The Great Debate’ switches from Dixieland jazz to church hymnals and back again as the argument zips from secular to religious. The arrangements are without doubt some of the most complex of Newman’s career, but unlike that Exclaim writer I found disentangling them to be a constant reward, because nearly every time there was an outstanding joke behind every choice.

Elsewhere across the most consistent album of the year (so far): there’s an amazing real-life tale about blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson, whose identity was stolen after he was murdered; there’s a rerecorded version of a so-so theme tune to 2003 detective series Monk; there’s a poignant love song that sounds like a present tense rewrite of Toy Story 2’s ‘When She Loved Me’. They all dispel the notion, in case anyone still believed it, that Newman’s merely a one-trick-pony ironist.

If Dark Matter‘s not as passionate as Good Old Boys, or as precise as 12 Songs, there’s still more than enough here to keep us busy unpacking until the next release. Which according to the current work schedule will be in 2026, when the great man’s 82 years old. I can’t wait to discover what new insights he will have uncovered by then.