Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet: Landfall (2018) – Album Review

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In which two of America’s finest experimental artists team up to create a modern classical suite about Hurricane Sandy, the deadliest hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, which caused approximately $68.7 billion of damage (the fourth largest amount in American history). The damage happened to include Laurie Anderson’s house in New York, which had to be evacuated during the storm. That understandably traumatic experience provides the narrative drive of this album.

Kronos Quartet, fresh off their excellent collaboration with Malian collective Trio Da Kali last year, here create a frightening impression of the hurricane, with their traditional lineup swirling around each other in frenzies that sound bigger than the four instruments that are playing, simply because of the forcefulness and technical skill they evince. The way each player scrapes and drives the sound out from their respective strings can be frightening in intensity, particularly on “Dawn of the World” and “It Twisted the Street Signs”, which really do sound like their titles. They convey a fierce natural world, one that has no need for human interference and can easily eradicate mankind’s achievements with just the barest of warnings.

Laurie Anderson drives the apocalyptic vision of these pieces even further with glitchy electronic beats, distortions, and samples that rumble ominously beneath the acoustic instrumentation and occasionally erupt above them, as on “Never What You Think it Will Be”, which suddenly disrupts the somnolent flow of the previous track “Galaxies II” with its almost dubstep-like heavy introduction.

Yet I’m disappointed with the lack of Laurie Anderson’s distinctive narration on this album; she appears on only 6 out of the 30 tracks. To some of us, her spoken-word performances are as iconic as any of those by modern music’s great vocalists: so far as I’m concerned, she can proudly stand alongside Elvis Presley, Bryan Ferry, Morrissey, and of course her late husband Lou Reed. She’s every bit as distinctive, weird, tender, and frightening; her enunciation and timing is to die for. She should be considered the gold standard by any other spoken word performance artists. So the fact that Landfall is a mostly instrumental album at first limited my good impressions of it. Had she finally run out of verbal ideas?

But then I realised that the lack of spoken word performances was on purpose. Because Landfall is not just a concept album about Hurricane Sandy, it’s also a concept album about the failure of language to either describe or protect us from cataclysmic events.

Indeed, Anderson’s only attempt to describe the hurricane itself goes like this: “From above, Sandy was a huge swirl/That looked like the galaxies/Whose names I didn’t know”. She ends the description with a shrug, an acceptance of the limitations of her knowledge, and suggests how language can’t quite adequately describe the storm – she hasn’t got the words for it, she can’t offer up the names of those galaxies that it looks like. Then on the album’s centrepiece, “Nothing Left But Their Names”, Anderson contemplates how extinct animals eventually become nothing but their names in a book. Some people might think that this existence in a book grants the animals immortality, but Anderson knows better; in a later song called “Everything is Floating” (everything), she sees all of her books and all of her life’s work floating around in the basement after Hurricane Sandy, dissolving in the water, and she realises that nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts forever, not even the written word. Language is transient and inadequate; it cannot save us.

So it’s suitable that Laurie Anderson’s voice is lost in the storm on Landfall. Her musings float around the album’s wreckage, so ably conveyed by Kronos Quartet, like everything does in her basement following the storm, signifying so much, and yet signifying most of all human being’s insignificance in the face of the universe’s frighteningly unstoppable natural forces.

So it’s a work about our mortality, much like her previous masterpiece, 2015’s Heart of a Dog. And it’s a work about the frustrating limitations of language and technology, about the difficulties of human interaction in the modern age, much like her magnum opus, 1984’s United States Live.

It returns to all of her favourite themes then, but most of all, unspokenly, to her Buddhist faith. Because how does she react to the realisation of the pointless existence of mankind, and particularly of all the material possessions that we’ve accumulated, as she surveys the wreckage in her basement? With these words, in her inimitable voice:

“How beautiful/How magic/And how… catastrophic.”

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Phantom Thread (2017) – Film Review

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It’s suitable that Phantom Thread is dedicated, at the very end, to the late Jonathan Demme. Much like The Silence of the Lambs, it’s a psychodrama concerned with the manipulative games that sinister people can play on each other.

Those two people are Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel Day-Lewis in apparently his last leading role), a middle-aged couturier who works in London’s unswinging 1950s world of fashion, and Alma Elson (played by Vicky Krieps in her first major leading role), the latest in a long line of beaus (a.k.a. sexual objects) to come and go from Woodcock’s fashion house.

Woodcock spots Alma working as a waitress in a countryside cafe; she is humble, and she stumbles, and he is charmed. He asks her out on a date, and we believe that we are in the familiar fictional territory of a middle-aged man seducing a much younger woman. Yawn; we don’t need to see that strain of male director’s fantasy onscreen again, surely. But then Alma produces a note with her name already on it and gives it to Woodcock. It turns out that she was prepared for his asking her out, and didn’t need to be seduced. We are being primed for later developments in the film – maybe, just maybe, she’s the one in control of their relationship. And maybe that’s what Woodcock wants.

Woodcock takes her back home and… they don’t have sex. He wants to dress her up, not undress her. Taking her measurements, he comments on her lack of breasts, to which she apologises, and he responds: ‘No, they’re perfect.’ Why? Because it’s the dress’s job to give her breasts, of course. His dress will change her body; this power is what turns him on, not her exposed flesh. The scene reminded me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which James Stewart dresses up Kim Novak to fit his fantasy. And similarly to that great film, Phantom Thread explores what shifting power dynamics can mean in a dysfunctional romantic/sexual relationship.

It recalls many other Hitchcock classics as well: Woodcock’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who manages the fashion house and Reynolds’ conquests, is clearly modelled on Mrs Danvers from Rebecca, so frosty and omniscient is she. Plus allusions to voyeurism/exhibitionism (Reynolds watches Alma at a fashion parade through a peephole; Alma is fully aware and enjoys it) and incest/necrophilia (Woodcock’s dead mother appears to him in a wedding dress at a key moment – in bed) echo some of the themes that run across Hitch’s oeuvre.

If Phantom Thread doesn’t come close to matching the heights of Vertigo, Notorious or Psycho, well, those are high benchmarks indeed. I admire Paul Thomas Anderson’s chutzpah, as both writer and director, for trying. This is a poised, elegant, and venomous film. It has the icy cool and sudden kick of a martini (watch out for the ending), and I think it’s his best film of the decade so far. Admittedly there are no likeable characters, which is a common problem for PTA’s films outside of Magnolia. But if you accept the cold exterior, there is much pleasure to be had underneath.

Most of all there are the performances. Watching Daniel Day-Lewis is never a chore, and the way he modulates his body language and facial inflections to convey the minute details of Woodcock’s character in this film is mesmerising. I’ve read critiques of his acting style that describe it as ‘hammy’, which I think confuses naturalism for good acting. Day-Lewis may not appear ‘natural’ in any of his roles, but his ability to inhabit strikingly different larger-than-life characters, and to drag them all down into the messy cesspool of contradictions that is human behaviour (including the venerated Abraham Lincoln), never ceases to impress me. As Woodcock, he captures with ease a man who prefers fabric to human beings, a misanthrope who seethes with rage at the mere noise with which a woman dares to eat her breakfast. The intensity of Day-Lewis’ presence burns through the screen, which makes Woodcock’s sudden outbursts of anger ignite easily, like gunpowder.

In fact, Vicky Krieps has talked openly about the intensity of his presence on set, and how she would avoid him. You can detect some of that nervousness in her performance; the way she responds to his incredibly specific breakfast orders in their first scene together has a genuine fragility to it. You can feel how Krieps might be overawed by Day-Lewis’ presence just as Alma might be over-awed by Woodcock; it works on both levels, and PTA plays on that knowledge. But he does so in order to upend our expectations later on. Alma will prove more than a match for Woodcock, and so will Krieps for Day-Lewis. The soft, charming Luxembourg accent in her voice that contrasts against the steely resolve in her eyes, as the film motors towards its climactic confrontation between the two, will remain my most powerful memory from the film.

Supporting performances are all outstanding, with the grotesque series of rich women who come to Woodcock for dresses each leaving an impression. Yet I was left wanting more from Lesley Manville as Cecil Woodcock; her character arc is left frustratingly incomplete, subsumed by Reynolds’ and Alma’s domination of the narrative. Whereas, for instance, Mrs Danvers was far from forgotten about in the ending of Rebecca, a comparison which lessens Phantom Thread‘s impact.

So it isn’t a top-tier PTA film (see Magnolia, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood), but it’s a solid second-tier one for sure (alongside Punch Drunk Love and Hard Eight, I would argue). If you are a creature of film, willing to accept its surreal atmosphere and occasionally freakish dialogue (‘kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick!’) you will be transported. If not, well, why are you reading this?

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Rich Krueger – Life Ain’t That Long (2018) – Album Review

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In which a 58 year-old paediatrician from the US cobbles together his debut album (!) out of various folk-country-gospel-rock-R&B-jazz combinations. It works, partly because it’s so excellently produced and performed, but mostly because he writes his ass off and sings his vignettes in a style that evokes so many of the great singers from Van Morrison to Randy Newman.

Ironically, considering the album’s title, it can feel a little long (average track length is over 5 minutes), but Krueger uses the spaces in his songs to flesh out the many intriguing details. From past lovers to a car salesman to Sid Vicious and all the way back to Emperor Nero, his wit and perception can illuminate just about any character who wanders into the path of his keen writer’s gaze. Plus when he describes the year 1977 in “’77/17”, when he fucked it up with a perfect girl called Nancy, the setting feels as alive as any of his characters; everything he calls to our attention from the Bee Gees to “Susan Sarandon’s perfect tits” combine to paint a portrait of the past that reverberates with cynicism. And if you don’t get the decidedly bitter picture from the words then a rumbling, angry sax solo is there to help you understand.

Indeed, most of the musical touches manage to support the drama of the stories, and the overall ambition of the album is impressive. Girl group pop that’s been passed through the medium of Bruce Springsteen is evoked on “Then Jessica Smiled”; one of Van Morrison’s 70s live epics seems to ignite the spirit of the 7-minute “The Wednesday Boys”; some of The Band’s slower numbers (perhaps most of all “Unfaithful Servant”) bubble up to the surface of “What We Are”; Marvin Gaye and “Amazing Grace” are prominently quoted, both times for a good reason. With the exception of a female chorus that sentimentalises more than it energises, particularly on the icky (to my ears) “Can’t See Me in This Light”, all of Krueger’s choices sound magical. A violin that weaves its way in and out of many of the songs? Especially so.

I can only thank Robert Christgau for introducing me to yet another ace singer-songwriter, whose work I shall now follow for life. This is special, enlightening, and entertaining. I want more.

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Mary Gauthier: Rifles & Rosary Beads (2018) – Album Review

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In which a singer-songwriter from Nashville co-writes eleven songs with American war veterans and their wives; the result of her work with the charity SongwritingWith: Soldiers, this is Mary Gauthier’s most humane and moving album to date.

She sets the words and thoughts of these people to music that is respectful, sometimes harsh, and yet always empathetic. Overall, the album’s sound reminded me of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska; it has the same desolate atmosphere, a combination of acoustic guitar, voice and harmonica in which that trio of instruments sound so lonely and apart that they seem to offer no comfort to each other.

And yet here, coming in at expertly judged times, are electric guitars, violins, fiddles and a piano, which aim to soothe the broken souls on display in the lyrics. The music ultimately shows that we are “Stronger Together” (as the final track is purposefully called), and seeks to heal the minds broken by combat.

The veterans she collaborates with offer terrible glimpses into the mental devastation wrought by their time in war zones. On the opening “Soldiering On”, for example, there’s this heartbreaking turn of phrase: “I wore my uniform with honour/My service was not a sacrifice/But what saves you in the battle/Can kill you at home”. It sets up this album’s main driving purpose, which is to show that some veteran’s deepest scars are on the inside. How can you live with yourself after having killed others, paradoxically in order to have lived yourself? It’s a circle of hell that’s frightening to imagine. And this album helps you to imagine it.

Even more devastating is “Morphine 1-2”, in which a survivor wishes they could trade places with two of their dead comrades, and “Bullet Holes in the Sky”, in which another survivor views the celebratory atmosphere of Veterans Day with a mixture of emotions: “They thank me for my service and wave those little flags/They genuflect on Sundays, and I know they’d send us back”.

That last line is about as political as this album gets. It shows a repressed rage at the complicity of the masses in America’s ongoing fascination with war, and reminds us of so many scenes in Born on the Fourth of July. The leftist in me wishes there was a little more of this righteous anger on the album. A country that’s been constantly at war since the 1950s, and allowed so many of its own citizens to die or suffer for pointless military excursions, should be thoroughly taken to task. It’s not enough to point out that veterans need our help, as Mary Gauthier does so well; there needs to be calls for no more veterans to exist at all.

Yet the humanist in me finds this album to be a marvel, and also very important, in its acknowledgment of the ways in which women, as well as men, suffer in war. Seven of these eleven songs were co-written with women, including “Brothers”, in which a female veteran bemoans the language of Veterans Day (“Brothers in arms your sisters covered you/Don’t that make us your brothers too?”), and “The War After the War”, in which wives detail the difficulty of caring for their husbands after they’ve returned from combat (“I get no basic training/I get no purple heart”). Perhaps most tragically of all, “Iraq” tackles the issue of sexual abuse in the military, with a female mechanic finding herself fighting off the unwanted advances of a host of male supposed-comrades and ultimately concluding “My enemy wasn’t Iraq”.

I’m inspired by the braveness shown in taking on these thorny issues, and by Mary Gauthier’s determination to give a female voice to the traditionally masculine field of war and its traumatic after-effects. And I applaud the restraint of Gauthier’s own voice, which sympathetically relates the stories of all of these veterans without romanticising them all that much. Her unfussy vocals are perfectly suited to relaying the horrors that accompany the daily grind of survival for veterans.

In all, her album shows that most people will cling onto anything in order to survive, whether it’s something destructive like rifles in battle, something comforting like rosary beads at home, or something healing like music.

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Coco (2017) – Film Review

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The most consistent film studio in the world comes up with another gem in Coco. On a budget of $200 million it’s already raked in over $600 million, an unremarkable feat for Pixar, but a fairly remarkable one for a film about death.

Then again, death has been Pixar’s overarching theme from the start. The Toy Story trilogy is essentially a metaphorical look at how all things must pass. The image of Buzz Lightyear sprawled out on the floor, with one of his wings broken after attempting to fly, is one of the most poignant illustrations of the fragility of physical matter in all of cinema. He’s not immortal; he’s just a toy. And the ending of Toy Story 3 is so moving to us because Andy’s leaving home represents the death of his childhood and therefore also all of his toys, including Buzz and Woody (so the decision to make Toy Story 4 was incredibly stupid – where can you go after death?).

Then of course there was Up, with its famous opening flickbook through a couple’s life together, ending up in a matter of minutes with an old woman’s death. It was a brilliant depiction of the fleeting yet ever-so-worthwhile nature of existence.

Yet Coco takes this fascination with death, which infects so many other children’s films around the world, and makes it more explicit than ever. For starters, it’s set in Mexico during the country’s Day of the Dead festival. But then, even bolder, it ventures into the Land of the Dead itself, after its hero, Miguel, attempts to steal a guitar from the tomb of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz and becomes cursed as a result. Accidentally ending up in the Land of the Dead, he must find a way to return to the Land of the Living before sunrise, or else risk permanently becoming one of the dead himself.

If this all sounds too scary for a kid’s film, know that Coco has all of the customary charm associated with the Pixar package. There’s a dopey sidekick (Miguel’s dog, not as funny as the usual sidekick), a breathless adventure across a strange land, plot twists that keep an audience guessing, and most of all a belief in the redeemable nature of (most) human beings that warms the hearts’ cockles.

Plus, needless to say, it’s all so visually ravishing that the Land of the Dead actually looks like a fun place to be. Parties, concerts, and bustling streets all have the mad energy of a Mexico City, except inhabited by skeletons. You’ll want to visit the world again once the film’s over (and we’re talking about the Land of the Dead, remember!).

There’s laughter and tears, of course there is. But though the latter is in roughly the same proportion as every other Pixar film, the former isn’t. The comedy is lessened because, frankly, Miguel is a dull hero. He’s filled with an unbridled enthusiasm, particularly for music and his family history, fine. But this one characteristic can’t sustain interest for the length of a film. Where’s the conflicting darkness in him that makes Pixar’s best characters so intriguing, and intriguingly amusing – Woody’s feelings of jealousy that cause his feud with Buzz (Toy Story), or Carl’s misanthropy that helps separate him from Russell (Up)?

Which is to say that for all its surface level enjoyment, Coco doesn’t cut quite as deep as the best Pixar outings. What’s more, its depiction of death is so neutered, so unthreatening, that it risks being of little use to children who would be better off educating themselves with Bambi or The Lion King instead.

But there are some genuinely emotional moments that deepen the entertainment value and help Coco to earn its place in the Pixar pantheon. In particular, Pixar’s proven commitment to richly detailed elderly characters continues to reap rewards, with Miguel’s grandmother providing the film with its title and emotional epicentre. There’s a tremendous scene towards the end, in which Miguel simply sings an old tune to her, and memories of a long lost love visibly come crashing down before her eyes. Yet instead of pain, there is joy.

Our loved one’s memories are the real Land of the Dead. It’s how we live on after we’re gone. Mexicans are aware of this, and hence their Day of the Dead. Coco captures the spirit of this, and as a result it’s not just appropriating Mexican culture for commercial reasons. It manages to show how understanding that culture might be beneficial to all of us.

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The Top 30 Films of 2017

These were the best films of the year – no debate!

Of course there’s debate, there’s always debate. That’s what makes writing about film so interesting. For instance, I read many great pieces on the brilliance of Blade Runner 2049, but to me it seemed like a sluggish bore with precious little of the original’s poetry. And overall critical fave Get Out didn’t convince this horror skeptic that its social commentary was pointed enough to overcome the dull descent into horror movie cliches.

So you won’t find those films on my list, as adored as they are. But you will find a variety of other joys, some of them critically respected, others ignored or passed over. Here they are (films released in the U.K. in 2017 only):

 

1) Moonlight

The first time that the Oscars’ choice for Best Film has matched my own since 2007’s No Country For Old Men. Just like La La Land, its narrative is based on an age-old genre: the Bildungsroman. But Moonlight transcends its genre limitations with more agility than La La Land. Its conception of the fluidity of identity is marked by the graceful flow of its cinematography and the narrative ebbs and flows, all beautifully controlled by Barry Jenkins, whose work on the film so much deserved the Oscar for Best Director over Damien Chazelle. As a study of toxic masculinity coming up against the frightening honesty of love, it’s a story for our age, and for all ages to come.

 

2) My Life as a Courgette

Delightful; upsetting. I have rarely been as surprised by a film’s tonal complexity – this is in the league of Bambi, The Night of the Hunter, and Blue Velvet. Like those films, this one has moments of sheer childish pleasure, which restore your faith in a medium that is all about childish pleasures, but also contains moments of horror that could be traumatising for young viewers. Set in an orphanage, and with slightly creepy luridly coloured children with heads as large as their hearts, this doesn’t shy away from the potential calamitous damage of growing up and is all the better for it. Yet you won’t see a more heart-warming film all year.

 

3) The Handmaiden

Another coming-out-of-the-closet film? Good, we can’t have too many. Based on Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, but with the action transposed to Korea, this is audacious enough to suggest that male-female sex has its limitations, and that female-female sex might in many ways be preferable. In a film about complicated power struggles between the sexes, the heated lesbian sex scenes become symbols of equality in the face of male oppression. It’s steamy, yes, and so lusciously photographed as to be accused of glamorising sex on screen. Yet the final moments are inspiring, and crucial in understanding how this is a great story, and not mere pornography.

 

4) Manchester by the Sea

Perhaps the story that most people will recall from Hollywood this year is of victims of abuse speaking out against their oppressors. We always knew that Hollywood was full of grim sleazeballs, but the extent of the damage was nevertheless still a big shock. Casey Affleck has long been problematic as an actor/director who stands accused of various acts of sexual aggression towards his co-workers. I know reasonable people who refuse to watch his films because of the allegations made against him. I understand this – the charges really are grave. But in the same way I can still watch Hitchcock or Polanski films without remotely liking the men behind them, I can’t stop myself from marvelling at this film and Affleck’s performance in it. His character is the ultimate antihero – difficult, abrasive, insular. He can’t even chat up women in a bar. Which makes the depth of care you’re made to feel for him all the more remarkable. Director Kenneth Lonergan handles it all with humour and sensitivity, eliciting stellar performances from all involved.

 

5) The Red Turtle

A gorgeously rendered, tranquil, bleak animation that wordlessly weaves its charm. It has a faith in mankind’s ability to improve its relationship with the natural world that’s never stupid (i.e. hippieish, as in Avatar) or absolute (there are moments of cruelty by man against nature, and vice versa). And there are sequences with all the wonder of an episode of Planet Earth, and with the same moving sense of our species’ insignificance.

 

6) Call Me By Your Name

Try looking at a peach the same way again after watching this. Such is the magic of film: ordinary objects can be made to take on extraordinary meanings. And the magic of this particular film is in how it takes a potentially sleazy situation, with a 17 year-old falling for his father’s research assistant (an older man), and transforms it into a beautiful summer’s dreamlike illumination of romantic ecstasy. Just perfect in the youthful role, Timothée Chalamet is all gangly charm and pent-up sexual energy, his eyes full of a hope that his summer liaison can last whilst his prodigious smarts let him know that it can’t. It follows close to Summer With Monika and Before Sunrise, not to mention the Grease song ‘Summer Nights’, in showing a love affair that becomes heightened because of the time limit imposed upon it.

 

7) Risk

This really is the riskiest move that Laura Poitris has ever made as a documentarian. She follows Julian Assange: first respectfully, then questioningly, and finally with a growing sense of disillusionment as the rape allegations and other charges build up against him. It’s an expose of the man’s nastiness that raises an important question over the legitimacy of the Wikileaks project as a whole. Top marks for honesty.

 

8) A Monster Calls

At first I couldn’t shake the TV-movie-of-the-week feel – we know that watching a parent slowly dying from cancer must be an almost unthinkably awful thing for a young child to cope with, so why do we need to watch a film about it? Isn’t life difficult enough? I think that this film is necessary. For one, it doesn’t sentimentalise its main character: a boy who lashes out verbally and physically against the people he loves. Its fantasy elements, much like Pan’s Labyrinth, deepen the sense of psychological reality by revealing the hidden truths in a child’s mind during a terrible moment of crisis. And one devastating truth that comes towards the end transforms it into one of the most honest depictions of being forced to watch a loved one die that I’ve ever seen.

 

9) The Big Sick

At last! A Judd Apatow production that cracks my top 10, through sheer force of likeability. It would be as useless to argue with this film’s many charms as to argue with an ex-girlfriend in a coma.

 

10) Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow takes a big step up with this, a look at one particular instance of racially motivated violence perpetrated by the police during the Detroit riots in 1967. Impressively, it eventually zooms out to depict how injustice permeates all levels of the US judicial system. It’s tense beyond belief, and there’s a deeply unsettling portrayal of how private insecurities can be dangerously unleashed in the form of violent bigotry. Particularly unnerving (and brilliant) is Will Poulter, seemingly possessed by the spirit of all of his country’s worst impulses.

 

11) Toni Erdmann

12) Okja

13) The Lost City of Z

14) The Florida Project

15) Dunkirk

16) 20th Century Women

17) The Salesman

18) Marjorie Prime

19) It Comes at Night

20) A Ghost Story

21) City of Ghosts

22) Frantz

23) Elle

24) Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

25) Paddington 2

26) Harmonium

27) Laerte-se

28) Logan

29) La La Land

30) Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

Top 10 TV Shows of 2017

Please don’t ask about Game of Thrones or, Lord help us, House of Cards (is anyone else bored with beautifully shot scenes of dull people killing each other?). Below are the 10 best shows in what’s been a terrific year, mostly thanks to Margaret Atwood. I’ve yet to be convinced that television is better than film, as many wise people continue to argue. But it’s certainly much better for comedy, so much so that I feel a little embarrassed for Hollywood. Comedies hold their own very well against serious dramas on the small screen(s), I feel, and my list reflects that. The same can’t currently be said for film.

One caveat for my list: I haven’t watched Twin Peaks yet; haven’t had time to even watch the original. As a huge David Lynch fan, I acknowledge that this makes my list even less authoritative than it usually is. Never mind; these were my outstanding experiences of the year:

 

1) The Handmaid’s Tale

So disturbing that it took months to shake, this appalling vision of a future in which women are harvested for their wombs, based on Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi novel, has of course already been signalled as a Trump-era classic, summing up the pessimistic feelings of liberals the world over. But in the end, I’ll remember it more for the scenes of small moral triumph: the spitting out of a cookie that’s been patronisingly offered by a superior, driving a car into law enforcers, riding on top during sex, most significantly the dropping of a stone (those who’ve seen the show will understand). Equally, after the years have (hopefully) erased some of the damage that Trump has wrecked, I hope that we’ll remember our own small moments of moral triumph. In particular the Women’s Marches and ‘Me Too’ movement, which proved that millions of people refuse to put up with repressive bullshit. So yes, The Handmaid’s Tale will always be a troubled reflection of the times in which it was made. But it’s also an achingly felt, militantly proud manual in how to resist patriarchal fascism.

 

2) Alias Grace

The great Margaret Atwood again. This adaptation of her book about a real life 19th century murder case doesn’t hit as hard as The Handmaid’s Tale, because it’s not as cinematic, but it remains an engrossing success. Adapted by the great Sarah Polley (director of Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell – two of the best films of the decade), it continues her enduring fascination with how we construct narrative, wittingly and unwittingly, in order to obfuscate truth. The story is an endless riddle, in which a prisoner, Grace, weaves her spell on various men and relates a past in which she may or may not have been a murderer’s accomplice. Did she do anything criminal? If you expect tidy answers, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for an exceptional performance to captivate you for 6 episodes then look no further than the great Sarah Gadon, whose electrifying eyes pierce the screen and dare you to work out whether her character’s play-acting or not. Grace could be a femme fatale and an abhorrent, deliberate murderer. She could be the victim of masculine abuse, and accidentally complicit in terrible crimes. Or she could just be psychotic. Perhaps, as this series brilliantly suggests, she could be all three. So it doesn’t follow a neat feminist arc – this is real life, or at least an approximation of it, which means it’s at once more disturbing and complicated.

 

3) The Vietnam War

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18 hour documentary, 10 years in the making and with a budget of $30 million, is so comprehensive it makes previous efforts to document the Vietnam war look facile. Many classic fictional films have been made about the conflict. But I would sacrifice Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter for just one episode of this. The series looks set to become a definitive document, like Shoah managed with the Holocaust, through the simple yet essential virtue of interviewing the widest array of people involved: American troops, the NVA, Viet Cong, ARVN, Vietnamese civilians, American protesters, and journalists all get a say. Their voices merge into a complex and frightening portrait of a conflict that was prolonged through a series of catastrophic choices – on many sides. The episode about the Tet Offensive is harrowing beyond belief. It’s as convincing an example of man’s irredeemable nature as The Act of Killing and indeed Shoah before it. Still, the series as a whole manages to conclude, painfully and incompletely, as a work of humanism.

 

4) Girls

Lena Dunham achieves a rarity for a comedy series, hell for any series: a last season that’s the show’s best. The ensemble cast have never been sharper comedically or more unsettingly antipathetic towards each other – their lack of chemistry was always the point. Adam Driver continues to steal every scene he’s in (the show never was just about Girls). And in its final episode, the show’s ever-frank depiction of the female body helped to set up the most honest depiction of the difficulties of early motherhood that this young male has ever seen. What a finale.

 

5) Love

As sensitive a look at the title’s emotion as any I’ve come across this year. The longform series works magic for Judd Apatow’s trademark scenes of long, mindless, sexually frank chatter. And the central characters are convincingly damaged goods. They cause pain to themselves and each other without ever (completely) losing a kind viewer’s sympathy. It’s a triumph that never insults the audience’s intelligence… until the last episode, sadly, when some of the plot’s sillier machinations dictate a suspension of disbelief that renders its central lovers shallow at a crucial juncture in their relationship. Otherwise perfect.

 

6) Master of None

Aziz Ansari’s brainchild takes the ‘will they won’t they’ dynamic of countless sitcoms to new heights in a one hour penultimate episode special. The chemistry between Ansari and his Italian belle, Alessandra Mastronardi, reaches new peaks – she’s engaged, and they recoil from acting on their impulses. I won’t ruin what happens for you: you must see it for yourself. Rest assured, it’s a great reminder that cliched plot elements can be made to feel fresh again through winning performances and a refreshing lack of irony.

 

7) The Deuce

Just like Francis Ford Coppola, David Simon knows that the story of American capitalism is the story of America, and also the story of America’s deeply ingrained failings. But also like Coppola, he knows that the illegal trades of the country form a less alienating way of telling that story (people can distance themselves from mafiosi thugs), so he’s moved on from the drug slinging and political corruption of The Wire to depict ’70s prostitution and the rise of the porn industry. As a writer, he remains a bit too fascinated by tough men acting tough. But he redeems himself with an interest in tough women acting tough, even, contradictorily, as they’re promoting their own abuse in the sex trade. Strangely (and perhaps perversely), it’s a lot more fun than The Wire, despite its dark subject matter: it has a pulpy flow to it, and lively performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco keep spirits high. But it’s not quite as deep.

 

8) The Crown

You don’t have to be a royalist to enjoy this show any more than you have to sympathise with real-life thugs to enjoy The Sopranos. Because The Crown is another excellent family drama – the best on TV right now, I’m convinced. Elizabeth and Philip’s relationship wouldn’t be any more interesting than millions of others were it not for the fact that, in her majesty’s words, they can never get divorced because of the awkward matter of their peculiar social standing. And it is peculiar; these are flesh-and-blood human beings like the rest of us, yet by birth they are deemed ‘superior’. One of the many things this series highlights so well is just how odd it is that we romanticise and hold to a different level of scrutiny these figures who, beyond their fabulous wealth, ultimately bathe in the same water as the rest of us. Their marital and interpersonal problems are as common as muck – infidelity being the key, as is so often the case. However, the solutions that they’re required to formulate are, by necessity, anything but normal. Such is the fascination of this show, heightened by the intensity of Claire Foy and Matt Smith in the melodramatic lead roles, and the gorgeous period design, which makes the old-fashioned world feel so vibrant and real.

 

9) Blue Planet II

Oceans cover over 97% of our amazing planet, so really you have no excuse not to spend 7 hours of your life watching this spectacular achievement.

 

10) The Trip to Spain

More of the same, of course. Which is no bad thing. Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan could pretty much travel anywhere, they could keep talking ad infinitum, and I’d still be hanging onto their every Michael Caine-inflected word.

Top Albums of 2017

Here are my favourites of the year. I think it was a fairly strong one for music, although from my perspective there were no instant classics to match the likes of Lemonade or To Pimp a Butterfly. My number one choice is a little too uneven for my liking, and try as I might I couldn’t find much jazz, metal or electronica to tickle my fancy, all of which I find disappointing. Still, I had a busy year, and I still managed to discover these 40-odd albums of good-to-great quality, without much difficulty. Which goes to show that the industry is still going strong for us poptimists. As usual, I’m sure there’s plenty I’ve missed – please feel free to share your favourites. I’m always on the lookout for more great music. Just please don’t mention Father John Misty…

 

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1) Angaleena Presley – Wrangled

It can feel pretty lonely as a British country music fan – there are sadly too few people to share my passion with. So two years ago I attended one of Angaleena’s gigs in Bristol, and along with the 100 or so other people gathered there I was transported to another realm that was as exhilarating as any live experience I’d ever had. Angaleena embodies all that I love about the best country music: its plain-spoken everyday wisdom, its addiction to “three chords and the truth”, its striving for beauty over innovation. Wrangled is far from perfect. But Angaleena’s seeking out of her own brand of perfection within genre limitations, driven by a poignantly unrealised desire for commercial success, inspired me like nothing else in music this year. Plus “Bless My Heart” is the funniest country song since “Gravity’s a Bitch”.

 

2) Lana Del Rey – Lust for Life

This has the best Love/Lust duo of the year (sorry, Kendrick), and for once Lana’s ethereal voice sounds tethered to a grounded optimism. It’s long, but then who sets a stopwatch on amazing music?

 

3) Music From the American Epic Sessions

I loved everything about the American Epic project – the 3-part documentary series exploring the lives of some of the founders of American music, the 1-disc soundtrack, the 5-disc collection – but most of all I loved this, a 2-disc celebration of the series’ music with contemporary artists recording old and new songs using the very first recording equipment. The primitive technology means that they have to record live in the studio: one take, no multitracking, no overdubs. The results are revelatory and enormous fun. Highlights include several Jack White numbers, Nas demonstrating through his cover of “On the Road Again” that gangsta rap is as old as time, Ashley Monroe sweetly duetting with a sonorous cello on “Jubilee”, and Beck sounding like he’s discovered gospel for the first time on “Fourteen Rivers, Fourteen Floods”. But there’s so much more.

 

4) Randy Newman – Dark Matter

This cynical old bastard just keeps on getting funnier – and as he gets funnier, remarkably, he also gets sweeter. Dark Matter summarises the state of the world in 2017 pretty well, one in which Putin naturally gets centre stage, much to any thinking person’s dismay. Yet it finds redemption in curious places. Not least in the pathos of “She Chose Me”, which could easily have appeared on the Toy Story 2 soundtrack.

 

5) Fever Ray – Plunge

Take the plunge into this sometimes harsh, dissonant electropop and come out drenched in erotica and right-on political creeds to quote at your enemies. Go on, I dare you.

 

6) Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

I resisted for a while, because I missed the deeper funk of To Pimp a Butterfly, but it’s damn hard to resist the pull of the greatest rapper alive. There’s simply no doubt that this is the most lyrically engrossing album of the year: profound, interconnected, mysterious, and of course challenging, like all of the best art. I still find it a tad musically inconsistent. But it’s the earworms of “DNA.”, “LOYALTY.”, “LOVE.”, and several others that keep me coming back again and again to explore the words.

 

7) The xx – I See You

So gentle it’s easy to miss. Indeed, it’s been passed over in many EOY lists. Yet its calmness bespeaks a confidence: the band use samples without worrying about dullards in the indie circle who bark on about “real music”, and their songcraft this time around has a hopeful romanticism about it. Their sound is forming an ever-clearer vocabulary of its own, that is nevertheless always evolving. And I’m all on board.

 

8) Sampha – Process

Proof that nice guys don’t always finish last. He’s the most promising Mercury Prize winner since The xx. He sketches soundscapes with vivid imagination, shading them with snatches of melody that are usually affecting. Many want him to come through and change the R&B world, but I merely want him to be himself, because the self that comes through is so scintillating.

 

9) The Magnetic Fields – 50 Song Memoir

50 songs covering 50 years of Stephin Merritt’s life rarely get tiresome, even as the music flits from style to style, e.g. from solo ukulele to disco to new wave pop. Though it’s not a straightforward A to B autobiography, covering musings on various other topics, its autobiographical details when they come are always lovingly and humorously sketched, maximising emotional involvement.

 

10) Old 97’s – Graveyard Whistling

In which Rhett Miller thanks God for Irish Whiskey and Pretty Girls, and God (a woman) tells him to behave himself. Yea verily, the time has come in this band’s life to contemplate their own mortality, just like countless others before them. Luckily they’re no hacks and their sturdy country-rock, the best by far this side of the Drive-By Truckers, is up to the task.

 

11) The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions

12) Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound

13) Conor Oberst – Salutations

14) Sleater-Kinney – Live in Paris

15) Paramore – After Laughter

16) Tinariwen – Elwan

17) The National – Sleep Well Beast

18) The Bob’s Burgers Music Album

19) Sunny Sweeney – Trophy

20) Young Thug – BEAUTIFUL THUGGER GIRLS

21) Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice

22) Orchestra Baobab – Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng

23) Jlin – Black Origami

24) Jay-Z – 4:44

25) Chuck Berry – Chuck

26) Hamell on Trial – Tackle Box

27) Syd – Fin

28) Saint Etienne – Home Counties

29) Nicole Atkins – Goodnight Rhonda Lee

30) BROCKHAMPTON – SATURATION II

31) Starlito & Don Trip – Step Brothers THREE

32) Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me

33) Margo Price – Weakness EP

34) Swet Shop Boys – Sufi La

35) Trio Da Kali & Kronos Quartet – Ladilikan

36) Alvvays – Antisocialites

37) Prophets of Rage – Prophets of Rage

38) Dawn Oberg – Nothing Rhymes With Orange

39) Charli XCX – Pop 2

40) Withered Hand & A Singer of Songs – Among Horses I

41) Whitney Rose – South Texas Suite

42) Sheer Mag – Need to Feel Your Love

Top 10 Songs of 2017

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I love lists, always have done. But let’s face it, they’re a pretty ridiculous exercise in trying to exert order over chaos. Why do these 10 songs, out of all the tens of thousands released this year, particularly appeal to me? I can try to explain, but really there’s no logical explanation. They just hit me in the gut, and make me want to scream about them from a rooftop. It’s that latter part that makes this all worthwhile – it’s fun to scream about things you love. And maybe you’ll find 1 or 2 songs here that you wouldn’t have otherwise known about had a madman not been screaming about them from a rooftop.

Probably not though. Most likely you’ll look at these 10 songs and think “ok then” and move on with your lives. Which I’m cool with. But as they mean the world to me, prepare to be shouted at. Here goes:

 

1) The New Pornographers – High Ticket Attractions

Proof, if any more were needed, that bouncing male and female vocals against each other atop joyously modulated waves of synthetic music, with a killer rhythm section and hooks thrown in for good measure, creates guaranteed jubilation. Like much of the best pop music, what this band says matters far less than how they’re saying it. And like much of the best recent indie, how they’re saying it is with a goofy grin and a tongue-in-cheek nod back to 80s pop. It’s pastiche done right. So right.

 

2) Kendrick Lamar – DNA

The double helix around which the rest of the album revolves. The themes of Loyalty, Lust, God, and all the others, so vital to Kendrick’s vision of himself at this moment in time, all pop up in various forms. So if you were going to save just one song from the album, this would be it. It epitomises everything else. And oh yeah, it’s also the catchiest and has the slinkiest beat to boot.

 

3) Conor Oberst – Napalm

If you’re going to crib from someone, might as well be a genius like Dylan. And if you’re going to crib from Dylan, might as well be his “wild mercury” sound from Blonde on Blonde – it’s so distinctive, so magical. Luckily Conor Oberst has the talent and the backing musicians to pull it off; with added snottiness, this could easily have fit onto that great double album. Yet here it is in 2017, proudly serving as the highlight of Oberst’s underrated (he’s always been underrated) Salutations. It’s a must-hear for anyone who still clings on to that musty old dream we call rock n’ roll.

 

4) Fever Ray – To the Moon and Back

Chipmunk-styled synths would normally make sane people snigger, but not in this case. Because this is the most powerfully erotic song of the year, squeaking its way towards an unbridled ecstasy that’s seemingly related to Fever Ray’s recent divorce and her subsequent release of homosexual energies. “I want to run my fingers up your pussy” she declares, and the surging musical backdrop makes that idea sound every bit as exhilarating as her voice portends.

There’s a bonus for Donald Trump in the music video; just check out the golden showers, sir!

 

5) Lorde – Green Light

As far as I’m concerned, this is the second time Lorde’s topped a pretty good album with its irresistible lead single. I’m in the minority, I accept, but in the future when I fancy me some 2017 Lorde, I’ll likely just play this one and stop. Why go downhill from such a high?

 

6) Khalid – Young Dumb & Broke

He ain’t dumb or especially broke no more, and he won’t be young for much longer. This look back to goofing about with relationships in high school tacks refreshingly away from the opposable perils of nostalgia and cynicism. Instead, it manages to steer a perfect course through lazy memories of adolescence, guiding listeners unsentimentally through their own.

 

7) Randy Newman – The Great Debate

In which the irascible equal-opportunities-offender puts everyone on trial in the form of a debate: believers, atheists, straw men, Randy Newman… Who wins? Come off it. This is satire, so everyone looks worse coming out than they did going in. Brilliantly arranged for maximum comedic impact, I’ve yet to tire of this elaborate joke, which is less a song than an operetta, complete with distinct movements separated by recitative.

 

8) BROCKHAMPTON – BOOGIE

With its demented sax riff and boogie-inducing rhythmic propulsion, this is my favourite of the many tracks released across BROCKHAMPTON’s three SATURATION albums this year. Seeking to redefine the label of “boy band”, which they assigned to themselves, they lay out their clearest statement of intent within this track’s madness: “Best boy band since One Direction/Makin’ niggas itch like a skin infection”. Um, does that count as lucid? Perhaps not. But it makes me giggle – these young hip-hop hopefuls really are a lot of unruly fun.

 

9) N*E*R*D – Lemon

Like most of the tracks on N*E*R*D’s latest album, the ace up this one’s sleeve is its guest star. True, it manages to work up a sweat all on its own, thanks to the Neptunes’ production which works an irresistible beat that feels like it could suddenly bounce off in any direction – just like dropping a lemon. But it’s Rihanna who gives “Lemon” its life force. She breezes in sounding like the baddest motherfucker in the world, which she undoubtedly is. Her frosty flow is so self-assured it commands the attention every time, like Jay-Z at his best. Her swagger’s always been perfect for hip-hop, and here the production is strong enough to help maintain her at career peak level, which began with last year’s ANTI and I hope won’t end any time soon.

 

10) Sampha – (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano

Piano ballads are treacherous ground for most people, but most people don’t have the keen ear of Sampha. He knows just how much to plink away at your heartstrings with his chosen instrument, the one that’s in his mother’s room and now reminds him of her absence (she passed away from cancer). His voice doesn’t go too far into over-emoting; it goes just far enough to suit the purpose of the song. It’s a triumph of exquisite judgment.

Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice (2017) – Album Review

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Lackadaisical charm personified, this album deserves to be played next to chestnuts roasting on an open fire. It’s a warm record where the underlying theme is companionship, despite the fact that there’s a cover of Belly’s appositely titled “Untogether”. Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile manage to turn that indie downer and most of what else they touch (each other’s songs, new songs, and especially Barnett’s wife’s song) into good-natured noises in the extreme. It’s the opposite of Eminem’s latest, in other words.

Recorded in Melbourne, these intercontinental friends share a knack for songwriting that appears offhand but, particularly in the case of Barnett, is actually rich in illuminating details. They also share a, shall we say, tangential interest in singing, their lazy drawls (those hooked to more conventional singing should look elsewhere) easily blurring into each other on this album. Which works fine, because the general atmosphere is so hazy and relaxed anyway. And because their guitars prod and play with each other amidst the haze in such a way as to keep one’s interest; some of the licks have had a way of teasing their way in and out of my consciousness for several days now, always with a pleasing effect.

Lotta Sea Lice starts off with a bum note, however. “Over Everything” is too long and has too much Kurt Vile (Barnett is the superior songwriter), both of which could be fair accusations of the album as a whole. Because the album’s tone is one-note, and no matter how pleasing that one note might be, perhaps this would’ve hit harder as a mini-EP?

Maybe. But there are at least 5 tracks that I would have had to insist remain: “Continental Breakfast” is an acoustic delight and one of the most touching odes to friendship since “Two of Us”, “Blue Cheese” is laugh-out-loud silly, “Peepin’ Tom” is gender-bending of the highest order and contains Barnett’s best vocal performance to date, and the aforementioned cover of “Untogether” vaults over the song’s meaning to find a deeper resonance in the aurally evident enjoyment of the two working together as friends.

Skip one or two tracks if you must. Or just press play and let its affable charms wash over you, unabated, as you flick through photos of your old friends, and are reminded of one of the key reasons to live – even more important than music.

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