Monday, 23 December 2013

Merry Christmas!

I started this blog back in March and I quite honestly didn't think I'd still be blogging by the time Santy was coming back around, so here's a big thank you to everyone who's checked out the blog; I hope you like what I've been writing so far and whatever I get around to next. I've decided my New Years resolution early: try and write a helluva lot more, which I'll get around to just as soon as the new year's hangover wears off.

So have a Happy Christmas (not Happy Holidays - get with it Americans) and a fucking brilliant New Year.


Sunday, 22 December 2013

TV Show of the Year: Gogglebox

The writerly cliche of "it shouldn't work but it does" has become so overused, especially in the world of TV writing, that it's now stupid to think anything wouldn't work, even the zany, opportunist crap that a slowly dying Channel 4 has been feeding us for a while. That's why Gogglebox, a show about watching small groups of people (a good mix of demographics, of course) watch the same TV shows you probably spent your week watching, actually makes for some of the most fun TV of the year. On one side it's a social experiment about how we all do what is one of the most universal activities known to modern man, and on the other side it lets you get a quick peep into other people's domains while they've got their hair down, or they're at least acting like they do; a combination which puts it somewhere in the no man's land between high and low entertainment.

The great appeal of watching people watch TV could be traced back to that great feeling when reading a book and finding that a stray thought you believed too weird to exist anywhere but your own head was in the author's head too. Gogglebox puts it's sights on one less than this, showing us people in their own homes watching TV like they supposedly do every night. It's a daily activity for most of the nation, although unlike a stray thought it's something we quite frequently share, which is why unlike if this show was about people brushing their teeth or taking a shit we don't watch to see if we're doing this whole TV thing right, instead we watch to see these other people simply being themselves, see how they do it differently, and if they do it better than us. Most of these people are funny, because most people are funny. Strangely (especially for Channel 4) we're never set up to laugh at these people, actually we almost always have the same reactions as the other people on screen, which is to say that Channel 4 could have chosen a very different cast and made a much nastier show out of it, one based on feeling superior to the people on screen, while instead there's a jolly atmosphere to everything up to the point where each person becomes a like-able character in what somehow feels like an interlocked cast. Because of this you never end up imagining the camera in your front room, trying to outdo those on screen and putting the spotlight on others to carry on the charade to be best; no, instead you really do "goggle" and like all the best goggling no-one else knows your there.

And in their aim to create a varied show the casting squad have clearly based their choices on age and ethnic stereotypes. No one plays up to the stereotypes, with the editing team giving everyone time to get fleshed out, and the show only further showing the universal connection created by TV and the way we all react to it so similarly. This year's X-Factor was featured heavily on the watch-list, and I was surprised at first at simply how much everyone agreed who should win. Maybe I was just surprised that everyone had such strong opinions of who should win on a show most people usually have strongly negative opinions about, although such communal agreement is a good sign we're not all as broken up as professional worriers would have us believe. Then Sam Bailey hit the screen and the fat jokes came pouring in, the obvious defense being this wasn't a group attack but lots of small individual groups pulling the thread of a joke that was just hanging in front of their faces, although if your going to take the shared enthusiasm for a winner then you'll have to take the shared ridicule of her as well. Thing is, I didn't find this bad, it would have been weirder if this joke wasn't made, by which I'm saying I'd probably make this joke - and you know you would/have - which only makes these people feel even more real, helped by the inclosed aesthetic of the show, which has the cast in their own homes, and the detail we get about them only minimal, and read out by Craig Cash, a member of Britain's favorite family of fictional TV watchers, no less.
I feel like the cast members are too good (they make show afterall) to not get some space here. And no, I didn't go for that other writerly cliche of watching and pointing at the screen everytime someone turned out to be exactly like someone I know. I didn't spot my friends in these people, only little bits of myself I've been self-conscious enough to notice. There is a nuclear family in here, in which we have the slightly chubby dad who embodies the nice at-home side of Tony Soprano, the more kids-orientated mother who's probably known to the kids as the "strict one", there's the son who's in a stage of trying to act older than he is (a moment that reminded me of a younger me: the son making fun of Australians to try and generate some Frankie Boyle-inspired shock laughs ("they think they're better than everyone else") only to find his family not laughing, his parents clearly worried about the fact that this is going out on TV, and the son having to keep up the performance lest he lose face), and the younger sister who wears pink and loves One Direction and acts all over-excited. They aren't as funny as most of the other cast members (characters? sketches?) but this only holds up a mirror to the viewer who probably wouldn't be, even though you'd like to you would be just as funny as these other people if put on the screen. The family sits with a mid-screen divide separating the men from the women, and the other characters all stem from this society-default family type.

The other families/friends have more quirks than this real life Simpsons, which almost guarantees that nobody will like all of them. The most obvious favorites are the older couple (my dad calls them a pair of "alcys") who own a bed and breakfast and spend most of the time boozed up. They're commentaries are usually funny stuff. Then there's the actual "old couple" of the show (my grandad described the man as "sex mad") who's interactions between each other are pretty funny. There's a gay couple who don't fall into any stereotypes, there's two old guys who's blank seriousness feels completely out of place with the others, there's the two average-joe heterosexual middle-agers, there's the two black brothers and their father. There's loads of them altogether, and I guess the biggest compliment I could give to all of them is they can't be summed up with generalizations.

Looking back I had more fun with the show than any other non-fiction of 2013. If you are going to criticize the back staging of the show, of which some things have to be artificially staged to make the show's creation possible, then your criticizing the whole fly-on-the-wall genre, which means your complaining to a brick wall of a genre that's already survived any criticism. The fun and occasional insights created are worth any small cases of forced reality. I know complainers would rather have Channel 4 pick addresses out of a hat at random and then sneak into the chosen houses at night where they can install hidden cameras into the living rooms and broadcast these people's TV watching activity for our entertainment, and all on a clean conscience knowing they're broadcasting hasn't lowered itself to the cheap artificiality of other channels. Those few won't enjoy Gogglebox, but for me it made for some great TV.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

An Introduction to the Dark Side of Youtube

I must apologize to the gods of focused education who never crossed my mind last year during Media, a course that is advertised as your biggest in into the entertainment biz but when stripped of it's clothes is nothing but one long (unhelpful) drag.

Only it wasn't for me and a few friends who scraped by grade-wise but otherwise had a ball, mainly thanks to Youtube. Just to get on the damn thing, blocked from all schools, makes you feel like a black market trader, and to bring the next round of laughs to the group makes you feel like a caveman bringing fire to the group.

But as any well trained psychologist will tell you: leave some slightly unhinged individuals in an inclosed environment for far too long and when you return to let them out you'll find things have gotta helluva lot of funky since you left.

What this entailed in high school form was a scrambled flurry to find the weirdest videos from what we eventually christened as "The Darkside of Youtube". I gather most of you will never have been, and after entering you may never want to go back (that's if you make it out alive of course) but it's an experience I recommend everyone to have. The videos posted below are each a good introduction to the darkside of youtube.

Don't Hug Me I'm Scared
This video is a good place to start as it's first half is about some kid-friendly characters in a jolly claymation world. Take it's descent into madness as a sign of your arrival.

Dog of Man
The greatest thing about all these videos is they exist completely in their own space. They start to play, creep you out, then end, with no extra explanation and no sequels. They aren't even satires or responses; things on the dark side very rarely have any connection to things on the outside.

As last year started to wind down and lessons became mostly nothingness but pretending to revise Youtube became a popular pass time in a lot of my lessons. This was much broader stuff, but this gem, which was watched on dangerous levels of repeat came as a nice discovery.

Nicolas Cage Loses His Shit
Different from the other videos in form as it's a compilation not an original animation. Of course if you think that unqualifies it for inclusion then the fact is focuses on Nicolas Cage (explanation un-needed) should re-qualify it faster than you can say "pissed blood". As it starts to drone on and the clips become darker the music adds a fantastically tragic tone to it all.

Drug Bust Doody
Check out the creator of this one (or all of them for that matter) Lee Hardcastle, as he specialises in gory animations like this one, which I thought because of it's completely unjustified explosions of gore was most deserving of a look.

Going to the Store
This one has a special meaning to me as I remember watching it years ago at a friends house. I would regularly go around to his where he would show me the many weird videos he had found. At the time it felt like a creepy extension of the anime spoofs he was showing me at the time; it later got me some good rep in those Media classes.

There's another version of Baaa which lasts for something stupid like 100 hours and like all videos of it's type is a test in irritation, while here in the minute long original the focus is on the weird ass animation. It especially freaks me out with my life-long fear of Cronenberg-esque body horror. This proves it's not just human bodies.

And the grandaddy of all that is mind shattering... Salad Fingers
It's the first of a ten part series that just messes you up more and more with each episode (it comes highly recommended from me) although it's this original episode that still stands as where all this creepy shit can be traced back to.

Hope you enjoyed (if that is the intended reaction?) these videos.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Paul McCartney - New

NEW is a fitting title in the sense that it accepts nothing Paul McCartney has ever made has ever sounded new. John got it right when he slammed Paul for making "granny music" like When I'm 64 which sounded out of place way back in the 60s, and on Sgt Pepper no less; but never fear Beatlemaniacs because to call it old now would be sacrilegious, at least in the sense that if Paul isn't bigger than Jesus (at least not anymore) he is at least more universally beloved. He's like the royal family: old and fossilized, yet also loveable and too important to have killed off, which is really why celebrity after celebrity crammed themselves into the video for Queenie Eye, the album's lead single and worst track, not because they wanted their name associated with the song but because they wanted their name associated with Sir Paul McCartney, the living third of the Beatles people gave a shit about and quite possibly the cleanest celebrity ever: hey, it's good natured ol' uncle Paul, the man who even did some marijuana back in the 60s just so he could fit perfectly into the status quo.

Which is to say I'm surprised Paul doesn't just name all his albums New and change the coloring on the front cover, after all he could have put this music out a few decades ago and it's only the production, which has a fantastically colorful lushness to it, that would set it apart. At least he themes his albums; NEW has been formed from DNA strands left over from Lady Madonna, although it's the moments of quiet ambience where you can really hear the longing in Paul's voice that work best. Which is why "Hosanna"'s the best song on here; you can probably fill an ocean liner with all the different women McCartney has written about over the years, although this song works, just like the other highlights on the album, because it isn't straight up L-word gospel, and not old age sentimentality either; like all McCartney it's masterful nature plays partly on the blankness it's creator provides, yet his simple want to entertain is impossible to criticize when your having fun.

And this is a fun album; it's dominated by filler but makes up for it with highlights that are as enthusiastic as Paul in his youth; the only problem is that this is a pretty basic refresher package of new material and has very little to say, especially not on Paul who's always kept the music and the man far apart, meaning you end up reviewing McCartney more than the album itself. Paul's always been a little flavorless, his almost technical perfection in the beats of songwriting always lacking the personality someone like say John Lennon put into his work. And John hangs over "Early Days" about the early days of the Beatles where Paul goes all soppy Joe on us. But can I really blame him? Could Paul McCartney ever actually give us a Lennon-esque turn over of such a cherished time? I guess not, so instead we have a bit of nostalgic loveliness that dodges any importance that might be expected of it.

Overall I'd recommend NEW. It's forgettable in places but on the good tracks (look out for "Alligator" and "Turned Out") you get a warm fuzzy feeling hearing that Paul still has it, even if it's just for a few glimmering moments.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

SPOTLIGHT: Syronix - 7 Months

While Lester Bangs was explaining to me how to be a rock critic he passed on one golden nugget in particular that I've been trying hard to live by since. He said "Charlie, if you’re gonna be a hotshit rock critic, you gotta find some band somewhere that’s maybe even got two or three albums out and might even be halfway good, but the important thing is the more arcane it is the better, it’s gotta be something that absolutely nobody in the world but you and two other people (the group’s manager and one member’s mother) knows or cares about, and what you wanna do is TALK ABOUT THIS BUNCH OF OBSCURE NONENTITIES AND THEIR RECORD(S) LIKE THEY’RE THE HOTTEST THING IN THE HISTORY OF MUSIC, you gotta go around telling everybody that they’re better than the Rolling Stones, they beat the Beatles black and blue" so here's some music that beats the Beatles black and blue, especially if were comparing in terms of electronic dance music.

In terms of holy-shit-this-was-made-by-a-17-year-old-who-just-so-happens-to-know-the-guy-who-writes-this-nowhere-music-blog the most impressive thing is Broken Hearts, which has a headstart anyway because the fucker actually has lyrics. Which is to say this is all blocky electro music with somewhat amateur sound, although is more Avici-style inspiring and less Prodigy-level scary. Although I'll stand by Broken Hearts as a professional sounding would-be chart hit. After that there's Festive Spirit, which ends the album, and is as good a case as any to argue with us dance music nihilists that there is emotion in computer beats.

The album's named after how long it's creator has been making original music, and the 16 tracks here are a collection from those 7 months. I don't know enough technical terms to sell it more than that, although there's some small story or meaning behind each of these tracks. So give it a listen/download or try and find your way around the soundcloud EDM community.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Asher Roth: King of the Blumpkins

Back in 09 Asher Roth released the scourge of all frat boy wisdom and even in it's drunken vagueness the best piece of romantasized American college hijinks that's hit the mainstream in recent memory with 'I Love College'. At the time I felt almost embarrassed liking the song, as catchy and fuck-it-and-worry-about-the-consequences-later as it was - it betrayed my grundgy rocker code and possibly even the code set down by being a mature-for-his-age Brit who was too young to even be attending these parties. It fell off the radios quick, because alas Roth still isn't a household name, and his white skin is his biggest claim to fame in the rap community, although before it disappeared completely I saw the song playing late one night while channel surfing and quickly scribbled down the name, oblivious to me at the time, in the contents page of a magazine I had been reading. Somehow I managed to lose the magazine, the song forever hanging there as a piece of insight into the adolescent world I would annoyingly never hear again, not aided by the fact that the man behind it hasn't made much noise since; there's whispers he'll release another album next year, which will be his first since his debut in 09.

Luckily it wasn't lost forever when I found 'I Love College' again earlier this year, completely by coincidence, and discovered it's just as fun as I remember it. And last week after finally getting around to watching the fantastically inspiring Eminem movie '8 Mile' which sent my mind into delirious fantasies of being a famous rapper, I listened to Roth's debut album, which has him 'Asleep in the Bread Aisle'. And what a fucking gold mine it is; everyone thought music was in the shitter in 2009 which must have went some way into making people miss sight of this treasure trove of unapologetically adolescent party rap and soothing confessionals that was right in front of their faces.

My wannabe rapper fantasies carved a mini-narrative into 'Bread Aisle' which I suspect was Roth's rapper fantasy too; or why else would things kick off with 'Lark On My Go-Kart' which is the most aggressive track here, Roth throwing out swears and adolescent vulgarities as fast as he can. It's the most black sounding of all the tracks here, and the most intensely fast; Roth gets it right when he complements his flow as "oh so sharp". In the fantasy this is the start of the night; darkness has descended and the first hits of drunkenness have begun to take effect. This is taking your shirt off, jumping on a table and yelling "Look guys, look how good I can rap". This track needs to quickly get everyone in the room and in the know; which it does with a real intensity.

Things never do reach the intensity of the opener again, which is ok as we quickly delve into party land. Standing on the table this is what everyone is wanting. The aforementioned college track delves into it's own delinquency and through sheer self belief holds it's head up high. You have the whole room chanting "Chug, chug, chug, freshman, freshman, freshman, do somethin crazy! do somethin crazy!" and things aren't any less delinquent on "She Don't Wanna Man" where Keri Hilson becomes the only featured artist on the album up to snuff. You'd think this fantasy in which you paste your head of Roth's body would belittle an artist who is surely well-tuned in his craft yet The Asher Roth Formula almost supports this open invitation; almost every track has a moment where Roth's flow wobbles, when he raps "All up in your fridge eating left-over shit/Tuna sandwich, butterscotch, crimpets/Cheetos be my choice of chips/I enjoy for a bit" things seem to knock him off balance for a second. It brings you out of the music, something you'd think Roth would want to avoid in the name of professionalism, although these moments find their way onto a good variety of tracks on here; in 'La Di Da' another party-ready highlight he raps "so many questions unanswered, I don't understand/Could you please explain sir" something doesn't quite seem right. Roth never falters when it comes to self confidence, of which he has in droves, but these moments where we are reminded he's not a master manage to break the barry that rap, the hardest genre to supplant yourself onto because of the raw talent required, has set up.

By now everyone's hammered out of their minds; they've never heard shit this dope. There's nothing left to prove, and no-one left to entertain. Now you've got some things to get off your chest, which could very easily fuck up in Roth's face although this, the most interesting aspect of the album, makes the case for him as smarter than you thought. For a reference point: during the final rap battle in '8 Mile' the end-boss battle type moment the whole film has been building up to, Em finally spits some smart stuff as he recounts the tragedies we have watched him slug through during the rest of the film to the surprise of his opponent who was planning on using such quips himself. Em then turns the gaze on his opponent and spreads the word on this guy's life, which in the world of this film come as great insults, the exact lines being "But I know something about you/You went to Cranbrook, that's a private school/What's the matter Doc, you embarrassed?/This guy's a gangsta? His real name's Clarence/And Clarence lives at home with both parents/And Clarence parents have a real good marriage". This could all be directed at Asher Roth, a privileged white suburbanite college graduate who has better college parties than you. The lack of any B-Rabbit style tortured life story could be the butt of the joke, but then look around and you'll see your in the house of some over-privileged prick who's parents are out for a conveniently timed business trip, not in ghetto clubs or spitting it to a very hostile crowd somewhere along 8 mile. Roth's rap is unique in it's laid back nature and it's lack of even sarcastically-swung aggression; which if you think about it for a second makes sense for a kid who isn't rapping to provide for his daughter or prove himself among a club of all-black people. That's Roth's music's unique selling point and what makes him so easy to impose your self on; his raps, without any larger-than-life persona spilling into the lyrics, focus solely on his music and the messages he gets across that are so frequently passed off as "privileged white people problems". It's not that these problems need a spokesperson, they most surely don't, but it's nice someone is getting them across anyway, and in such an unashamed fashion too.

Eventually the night starts to drone-one and the party-goers are starting to slow down; it's the perfect time to start singing "His Dream" which tells the story of an older man reflecting on his life with a few regrets, mainly centered on leaving behind his dreams to focus on being a good parent. It's scored with a backing track which smoothly fits the lonely melodrama of the story. The themes here are big, and it's place on the album can clearly be read as a concept: "This is the emotional one; the one that's gonna make all the critics teary-eyed" which is easy to say since Roth himself isn't caught in this bind, yet this track is so much more than that. It takes real courage in what your saying and that people will believe in it to put out lines like "So he's well aware how vital a father figure is/How big of a responsibility it is/To be a good husband and care for your kids/Never miss an event, helping them with their homework" but that's what Roth does, and even if it's done out of blind-confidence it's at least appeasing to listen to for the sake of hearing serious themes and not have to mock yourself or the song to feel alright about it. By this point the party should be in hysterics, and it is damn funny how far everything quickly goes from spring-break-college-party to this, but everyone's silent while you bust this one out. You've got them all listening, admiring even.

This fantasy's a nice one to have, of being a cool rapper still waiting for a big break, and Roth creates the backing track for this fantasy with "Bread Aisle". And please don't get me wrong, I don't make this comparison as a form of insult; Roth's raps are solid but his flow has a rigidness to it that makes the structure fully visible; he doesn't possess the looseness of Slim Shady. Yet this means you can hear him trying. There's nothing wrong with a rap god, quite the opposite really, but Roth's style taps into a homespun remedy that hasn't yet been heard in the mainstream anywhere else. It's exciting to listen to this disc, listen to him thanking Eminem and also modestly comparing himself to him in "I As Em" as I suspect most rappers of his age do, and listen to him giving a brief chronicle of his life and his changing musical interests in 'Fallin' because his thoughts feel like they have a real weight to them. If Eminem or Jay-Z gave us such small details of their lives, their musical lives even, then we'd call it a cop-out, yet Roth's words take on a greater meaning because they feel so untarnished; he hasn't built a stage persona to stop himself from seeming small, he's simply stayed himself and rapped about things that are big.

And it's this same truth that lets Roth sing songs others simply couldn't get away with. In 'Sour Patch Kids' he raps "Donate your dollars, raise a dollar/Help a mother, save a father/'Cause poverty is probably our biggest problem/And it ain't gon' stop with Obama/To save the world we must start at the bottom" which would sound like the-big-man-pitying-the-small-people if it came from a giant such as Jay-Z and would sound like a inside joke if it came from the likes of Kanye West, yet I can do nothing but believe Asher Roth's aim is true. In 'Last Man Standing' a single which Roth released with Akon in 2011 he says "Face it, I didn't want to be famous, but that's the way it is" although we've had 10 years of Eminem giving us the same schtick to know that this is bullshit, only Roth knows we know it's bullshit. It's said because that's what rappers say, and it's probably what we'd say too, but you'd have to ask yourself if you'd be as unfussy about it as Roth is. Going back to those sour patch kids, Asher Roth raps "But money doesn't mean/A damn thing to me/I just want to be/I want to be free" and fuck it, I believe him.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

An Article About Comments About an Article About Comments

Look Ma, I'm being all meta. Inspired by what Carl Wilson was doing in this article about a new book by Stephanie Barber that collects all of the Youtube comments on Bob Seger's 1976 hit "Night Moves" Adam Robinson of HTMLGiant made this article where he collected the most interesting comments from Wilson's article. So I'm following the rabbit hole down even further, aided by a whole site of these Sad Youtube comments, hoping to find out whatever it is everyone wants to find out about Youtube Comments.

I remember the early days of Youtube; the first time I ever encountered it was during the 10 minutes of "fun time" at the end of an ICT lesson in what must have been 2007, long before Youtube was declared a public enemy in schools across the land. My friend Lee showed me the site. The first video I ever watched was Matrix Cow, which seems to have helped greatly to shape my view of the internet at such a young age. I quickly started using Youtube mostly for music videos and added anyone I could find that had some sort of Nirvana connection on their profile. I even joined lots of Nirvana "groups" something recent Youtube users will know nothing about; they were joinable pages were people with the same interests could talk and make a big group playlist. I actually talked to a lot of these people, and a lot of video game fans too. There was a nice atmosphere to it all; you could post "bulletins" to everyone on your friends list, another thing that's now been removed. These were the first "online friends" I ever made, who are unique in that instead of being forced to be friends with them by the environment: school, work, home address etc you choose where you meet these people; playing Left 4 Dead online or posting questions about what your favorite Nirvana album is. I have such fond memories of this time; which is sad because I don't keep in touch with any of these people anymore (most don't even have the same accounts as before) and Google, who notably didn't own Youtube during this golden era, seem to want to do everything they can to make Youtube as unsociable as possible; ironically enough by adding tons of Google + features and trying to make everything more accessible. Hell, I wouldn't even know where to begin becoming a part of a community on Youtube like that again.

Speaking of thinking about being in times now long gone; Sad Youtube collects tragic Youtube comments of people caught up in memories brought on by the song they're posting on. Almost all of the comments start with "I remember" followed by someone telling of a great time in their life, usually linked to another person: a brother, sister, parents, ex partners etc. before describing how things have fallen apart since. Some just wish that they could be in that time again, others go into grisly detail; one describes his sister getting murder, another describes his life falling apart after becoming a rent boy. All show a link to that particular track and a glowing section of their lives. It's an expectedly downbeat experience reading these comments yet there is something inspiring in the thought that these people get momentary happiness from the music. I'm sure we all have songs that trigger something in us; the neurons in your brain dusting out old pathways to things long forgotten and bringing you back to an old place. It's rare you get this feeling, but wonderful when you do, so the fact these emotions are caught on Youtube comments of all things is impressive to say the least.

Youtube comments and comments sections in general have become so big that there's already a whole category of performance art dedicated to them; Wilson even references Marcel Duchamp, the grandaddy of conceptual art (thanks school art project) although most people still have only a negative perception of comments sections, and rightfully so, which Wilson acknowledges when he wonders whether "its typos-and-all excerpts offer cheap laughs at other people’s misery" although does note that this is not at all the case. I'll admit I found even the wondering of whether these comments were used as a punchline a little jarring; showing a very negative view of internet users, which comes across as a petty over-generalisation. Comments sections, in idea and execution, are representative of 21st century culture. In this article from a few months back David Drake asked you whether Drake was the voice of the current generation; citing his throwaway nature as his biggest appeal to youngsters. He is a man of the moment; his lyrics come out as swiftly as they form in his head. I doubt he puts little thought into his lines, he's as good an artist as any, but he mimics internet culture by making music out of small moments or momentary moods as if they will soon be gone forever and he needs a way to preserve them. Youtube comments are quick thoughts and moods, as are Twitter and Facebook updates, meaning they catch an insignificant moment and put it on the internet forever, only it isn't seen or responded to forever, maybe even never, but the fact it's out there is good enough for the average poster.

Wilson praises the Night Moves book, calls it a "page-turner" even; which is understandable if you've ever found yourself hypnotized by a comments section, most likely where an argument has broken out making for a usually fun read. Wilson writes there is "repeated fights about whether music today has gone all to hell, some fairly thoughtful and some more on the level of... (you can guess the rest)" I saw a great many of these when I went through a Led Zeppelin phase a few months back where no one seemed able to rate any of the Zeppelin catalogue, not even the pretty damn poor stuff, on it's own merit; beneath each video was a landslide of references to modern pop and Zep's grand superiority. Wilson then writes of another trend I find even more annoying: "This leads to another YouTube standard: a poster saying that he or she is a teenager and yet loves this song and hates rap and/or Justin Bieber" which is a fantastically fucked up 21st century convention the internet has made possible; people having to state their age, as if on an assembly recruitment line, then slating musicians of their own generation to gain acceptance from an older audience; which is the equivalent of walking into a local countryside pub and saying how much you hate these shitty modern day smoking laws just so you can get a drunken pat on the back from a group of guys you would in no other situation ever talk to.

The comments posted on Wilson's article, collected by Robinson, are insightful in their own right, but into something else; you'd think commenting on an article about comments would give these posters a more self-conscious attitude before clicking "post" yet an argument over modern music quickly breaks out. The longest comment sounds enlightened enough "To dismiss the current or the old as crap is the mark of a philistine who doesn’t really love music. They only love what music represents to them" which makes you want to agree just so some person on the internet will consider you a "real" music fan, although this comment takes on a very modern view, taken mostly by people trying to reach the "moral high-ground" on internet forums, where they completely deny the act of having an opinion, in this case wanting to like, or at least accept everything. Although this doesn't work; I feel like a real music fan, although I don't just hate Justin Beiber or Nicki Minaj, I hardly give them a chance at all. When another poster writes "Viva La Vida by Coldplay was the last hurrah" referring to good music in general it rings more true; the comment seems juvenile in it's single-mindedness and in an opinion I think there's a good chance you don't agree with. But that's opinion, or more precisely that's the opinion when put through the speedy response of a comments section. It's not enlightened, but it's at least more interesting than telling me I need to accept everything. People trash modern music. They call each other dinosaurs. They slide in jabs at Google +. They fit in funny comments and weird ones too. The best comment, and the one that gets it right without taking any sides is "Whatever you listen to when you’re young will always be the standard by which you judge all other music" which is a frightening thought really.

Robinson's article drew four comments of it's own, sadly showing the current lack of activity on a site that was swarming only a few years ago.

"night NEWS" Whatever this means 

"Barber (and Slutsky) indeed picked a medium-about-a-medium – comments about song-based videos – that lends itself to the spontaneous emoting (and thought) that it's built for, as Wilson explains well, but Barber also picked a particular song that depicts, is about, and provokes marination in nostalgia. (The song seems to have been effective enough to have gotten Wilson to end his blogicle wringing out a bit of just that marinade.) There are beefs and some name-calling on that thread, but it looks to me dominated by disclosure (and appreciation) of madeleine-moments. Interesting, sure, but from the point of view of a comment-thread skeptic–'vile cesspool' etc.– (which is [cough] not my point of view), a safe choice. A book of Obama Derangement Syndrome threads, or – why not? – Franzen or Tao Lin threads would have a much narrower range of, eh, personal reflection." An article with such wide appeal was never going to lead to a friendly discussion, but the straight shots of emotion provided by these sad youtube comments did lend as this commenter put it a sense of disclosure and appreciation 

"dude I want to comment on this post so bad" my favorite comment for it's obvious simplicity 

"The number of times commenters refer to age BLOWS MY MIND -- In "Night Moves" and beyond. "I'm 15 and I love this classic song." "I'm actually old enough to remember this song when it came out, and this is really what it was like, folks." "Kids today, this is how it's done!" &c., &c." Another person annoyed by this phenomena that I find most prevalent on the imdb message boards, at least when I frequented them up until about a year ago 

I like the discussion created by youtube comments because it's bare-bones nature has no equivalent. And I especially like all this discussion over such an unthought-about thing.

Monday, 2 December 2013

A Review of Zero Dark Thirty by a 17 Year Old Brit Who Hates Politics

I'm part of a group that is about as far away as you can get from the one the makers of Zero Dark Thirty were aiming for. All Brits could do when the film released last year was point and snigger at the American patriotic propaganda it must be. The arguments over torture flew over our limey heads meaning all we saw was America making the movie everyone knew would be made-made quick enough for the whole country to wallow in pride, and make Obama look good while doing it.

The problem is I was always going to watch Zero Dark Thirty anyway because that's the curse of being a film fan and having a new movie by someone like Kathryn Bigelow come out. I had mixed feelings about The Hurt Locker; it took an interesting perspective on the war in iraq, which has still seen surprisingly little coverage in movies, with it's character study of an adrenaline junkie bob disposal man, which worked on paper, and as a good look into a war we're all very confused about, but failed as an intense war film. Locker did deal with some heavy stuff but became too obsessed with it's characters, which is why Bigelow's fiction-as-journalism directional style felt too light on it's feet, because there wasn't enough journalism. It presented everything with the melodrama of the story while the filmmakers seemed more interested in the more medial military details. On the other hand Zero Dark Thirty is all medial details. You go in expecting gun fights and interrogations (controversial interrogations that is, which sound even better) and you get talking in boardrooms and devising plans; it doesn't so much divert your expectations as it makes you feel stupid for thinking the real thing was going to be as Die Hard as we all secretly hoped it would be.

The other thing that Thirty does different to how you'd expect is being so simple. The hunt for Osama Bin Laden sounds pretty complex, and at the very least we know it took a long time, hence I went in for a JFK/Zodiac-style mess of information. Both of those films had more characters and more points of view, but then again both those films didn't know where they were going, whereas Thirty takes us on a journey we already know the ending of with the preciseness of an SAS mission. So instead of a blur of dates and names we see most things from the perspective of Maya (Jessica Chastain) who's in charge of finding Bin Laden. She lacks a real personal life, instead replaced by an amazing drive to get the job done, which makes her actual moments of personality all the more thrilling; referring to herself as a motherfucker in an important meeting is a highlight. Maya lacks much character but she is a great character, and not just because of Chastain who works much better with more slight moments and gestures than screaming and shouting but because a huge character would have put some sense of desire into catching Bin Laden, but Maya wants to catch him for no more complex reasons than those of your average person on the street; he's a bad guy, he wronged many people, he deserves it, and it might just help with the war. The war in this case is as much an unexplained background force propelling people's actions with it's vague bluntness as it is to the real life public.

In the final third of the film we follow a SEAL squad (headed by Joel Edgerton) as they're sent on the mission the whole film's been building up to. In contrast to Maya these guys have the most exciting part of the film; finally we're out of those grey office blocks and into the suck. This section seems like it would be hardest to film, being that we all know how it ends, yet instead of getting things over and done with Thirty lingers on every small moment of the mission, which has even more impact when you think of the pace of the film preceding it. And you think the film might try to divert your eyes again, Apocalypse Now-style building up to something a lot less explosive than expected, which it does in some ways: the actual kill is more slight than the soldiers opening the door on their way in, and it isn't even issued by our expected hero Edgerton. But this film doesn't divert expectations. I mean how could it have? It would never have got away with it. After all that's why this section works so well. It drags things out and brings us right into the moment, and gives the moment the gravity the rest of the film hasn't allowed it to have; we haven't been waiting 2 and a half hours to kill the bad guy in the movie anymore, we've been waiting 10 years to kill Osama Bin Laden. I don't think people watched this section so intently because they felt scared or excited, I think they kept watching, wondering if it had all been worth it. Forget the news reports and the celebrations that followed, we've already had all that, in this section we watch to see what it was all actually for. The first time you watch Thirty you witness Bin Laden's killing in detail for the first time, but your reaction to his death, whatever it may have been, already happened more than two years ago.

In the end I really liked Zero Dark Thirty, more than any other film last year actually, although it takes a while to set in. Both JFK and Zodiac also took real stories of great cultural weight, so great that both films didn't even have names, just the names of their case files, yet they didn't shed any light on those cases, they simply made stories, some elements even fantastical, out of their confusion. But Zero Dark Thirty presents the Osama Bin Laden story in minute detail; I had no questions left when things were finished. Which makes Thirty the only film I can think of that tackles 21st century information-finding well; because we no longer have the imagination to be left guessing; we need to know everything, every detail, or it wasn't a worth-while story at all. Bigelow doesn't use Thirty to criticize this change, she actually uses it to make a great case for it; making us care for the how, not the what.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The 1975 Album Review

The fact that The 1975 have been playing together since 2002 creates a different expectation to this debut album than what most get, although it's stupid to pin 10 years to any album, especially one from a band that doesn't wear it on it's sleeve. The 1975 have only been releasing material since early last year, culminating in four EPs; with pickings from them alongside new material going into this debut album. This 10 years doesn't confuse the music as much as it confuses the band itself; even with so much time together The 1975 don't have an identifiable image; I found out about the band from two fan girls on facebook and not a marketing team, and even after spending time with their album I get the feeling The 1975 still don't quite know what they're gunning for.

The sound here has a solid beat, and a couple of the riffs flow well too, not that any of it sticks in the mind; the compositions are slower than your average pop and simpler too. The whole album has a quiet, lonely feeling that would work better in a bedroom confessional-type setting, but the band's aim is too broad to tap into this. Instead the production has a synthesized 80s feel to, so much that the opening of "Heart Out" sounds like it could quickly morph into Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas". It blends all the instruments together, adding more weight to the guitars and making everything shake when the drums hit, yet losing individual elements in the mix, allowing tracks to drone on, and sometimes burying Matthew Healy's vocals underneath the production, making them near-impossible to understand.

Yet for a band so focused on (and who's highlights come with) glistening pop, the band feels insecure in giving it to us. The opening track, brain shatteringly called "The 1975" is the opening track of a very different album, the over-bearing production qualifying the track as psychedelic-lite. Tracks like this show up throughout the album like the instrumental "12" (it's the 12th track on the album, get it?) there for padding, not because there isn't enough music here (there's 16 tracks in total) but to make The 1975 look bigger than they are. "Menswear" takes two minutes for the vocals to kick in yet when we get there it's a pop track as throwaway as most of the others; The 1975 want us to believe they're a lot more than just a pop band, at least something more experimental and meaningful, and they've certainly listened to albums that have done that before - the universe-of-possiblilities-type scope of instrumental "An Encounter" brings to mind "Here Comes The Night II" on Arcade Fire's latest - but they never put enough meat on the bones to make this album anything more than disposable pop, which they almost look down on.

When they're not looking down but accepting simpler arrangements The 1975's real talents come through; the highlights are "The City" and "Heart Out" which are fun if unmemorable. The names of many tracks are simply the name of the subject we're on: "M.O.N.E.Y" "Sex" "Girls" "Talk!"; a lot of the lyrics here don't illicit much brain movement but when they're writing well The 1975 come across as a more bleak version of OneRepublic by which I mean they've got the pop-rock formula down pretty well: little small talk, focus on the emotionally connecting lines. The best lyrical work here is in "M.O.N.E.Y" which describes a bad night with too much drinking, the lyrics never transcend quick-relations but they throw out lines that flash straight in your eyes (ears?): "He doesn't like it when the girls go/Has he got enough money to spend?" and "He's just been barred for that blues he was smoking/And then he barks: it's my car I'm sleeping in", and later on the band goes into even more relatable territory, at least to youngsters who aren't aware their youngsters, with lines like "She's got a boyfriend anyway" and "Why don't you take your heart out instead of living in your head" which border on manipulation but for the purposes of the songs here gets the point across perfectly.

What I'm trying to sum up here is that The 1975 don't/doesn't harm anyone, although I really wish it/they did. It want's to be pop but there's catchier stuff out there, and despite this being a band that's been together for 10 years there's much more confident stuff out there too. When the album aims for something more it just weighs it's other parts down. As a building block this debut feels blank, and doesn't really point to any future for the band if they continue to be on the fence like this. It's got catchy moments though, which is really all I can say.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Lester Bangs: My Drug Punk Hero

Reading "Main Lines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste" I haven't even got to any of Lester Bangs published articles, I'm still on clippings from some auto-biography pieces he wrote in his youth, titled "Drug Punk" and I can barely get through it because I just wanna run to the computer and write. I haven't felt this excited since reading Psychotic Reactions, and this is just Lester's scribbles before he got published. So I'm telling you right now if your an aspiring writer, you want to be big and have lots of people reading your writing and your giving it a go but your not quite there yet, then let me tell ya' you need a Lester Bangs. You need someone who makes you want to write after you read one sentence. Who rambles and blabbers on but to your eyes it's made of gold. It doesn't matter who it is, some romantic a hundred years gone or some guy who wrote his first blog post last week, or even one of the greats: Hemingway or Fitzgerald, it doesn't matter, you just need one, because reading from that writer you understand why you've got to keep on typing away. Not because you want to write that good, although you should be aiming for that, but because if writing your own stuff ever creates that same feeling as reading their's then you'll know your doing it right. Lester Bangs is the reason I write, and my drug punk hero.

Happy writings!

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Mike Leigh's Naked (1993)

In the first scene of Mike Leigh's Naked we see Johnny (David Thewlis) raping a girl before quickly driving to London (from Manchester) to avoid the consequences. He goes to the apartment of an ex-girlfriend (and her two wildly different roommates) and after conjuring up eccentric reactions from them leaves and spends most of the film walking around the London streets, interacting (and annoying) the locals, and finding himself in worse and worse predicaments; not that he ever seems to care all that much.

It's a wordy movie, made up mostly of dialogue from a wide variety of characters who don't stick around long and don't seem to affect much in terms of plot. Yet plot isn't what Naked is about, and neither is it about what makes Johnny tick; as Johnny says at one point "You've had the universe explained to you, and you're bored with it, so now you want cheap thrills and like plenty of them" before walking us through a disposable world where he remains utterly disgusted with everything he see's, and happy to tell everyone about it. It captures a time and place that doesn't seem far away but doesn't exist anymore; that old Britain, not yet commercialized into looking like the rest of the world; it's lots of old fashioned wall papers and yuppy offices. Each person lives in their own little box; the apartment in the film has three people living there but doesn't look lived in at all; it looks temporary, as if all the people living their decided the second they got there that this isn't where they want to stay; Naked is a collection of lives - a lonely night guard, a shy waitress, an easy-going junkie type - that don't feel like they're being lived yet, like they're waiting for a jump start, yet Johnny seems to be the only one who understands that-that jump start isn't coming.

London is painted as an apocalyptic wasteland, each act of unsettling human nature completely ignored by the other happening just a few feet away. All the outdoor scenes look very cold, as if it's the city that's naked; stripped of it's own soul and reduced to accepting the wasteland it's become. Millenium angst looms large, as if the countdown to 1999 has let people live without the same cares as they normally would; this is the setting of The Clash's London Calling, only it's not the government that's pressing down on everyone, the government is invisible here, it's the people themselves; a city eating itself from the inside out. Yet we keep watching Johnny, not because his bleak view lets him see what the people around him don't see, but because even though he's just as lost as everyone around him he seems to care; it would be easy to say he's given up but the torment Johnny looks trapped in stems from a disappointed with the world, and it's only a select few who have the bravery to be disappointed. He has tattered clothes and a messy excess of facial hair and through it all he looks like Jesus, and he wanders around like some sort of messiah; he doesn't give out any answers but looks like he knows them all.

The energy Johnny inspires stems simply from a sense of purpose; he's that magical layabout figure that somehow doesn't seem lost. Johnny's only real possession is his rucksack which as far as we see contains only a small collection of books, Johnny coming across very well read, and sitting there at night watching the movie it made me want to go to the book shelf and start reading right then. Because Johnny's the type of book worm everybody wants to be; not the greying professor but the man who looks like he's been into as many strange worlds as he's read. At one point he finds himself in a woman's house, checking out the book shelf; he tells her about Homer's Odyssey which she owns but hasn't read; it's hard to imagine this man sitting down and reading The Odyssey, instead he comes across as a character who was born already knowing it.

In the best shot of the film Johnny is attacked by a group of youths; they emerge from a dark alley and are masked in silhouette, as if it's the city itself that has swallowed him whole and spat him out a beaten wreck. It's a cruel joke by the filmmakers that we get to know all the characters Johnny meets and annoys, yet it's a nameless group, completely clueless to who Johnny is, that attack him. This sequence always reminds me of a news story from around 10 years ago when Thom Yorke, of Radiohead, was beaten up outside a pub in London. Both men, the real and the fictional, are symbols of angst against the modern world, and these incidents both have these men being beaten up by their own angst; the same world they look down on coming forward and reminding them that they haven't changed it at all and probably never will. That incident can be clearly heard in the sound of Radiohead's album "Hail to the Thief" a peak of paranoia and going off the front cover: capitalist angst. That music would go well with Naked, although even better is the film's melancholic score, which manages to follow Leigh's wonderfully realistic emotional pallet beat-for-beat.

Yet by the end of the film we're at the exact place we started off, more or less, but it feels like we've progressed. Johnny gains nothing from his visit to his ex other than the knowledge of what she's doing now; no relationship after the end credits is pointed to. Yet there's a relationship there that wasn't there when the film started, even if it's gone as soon as the ending; like we are Johnny thinking of this trip to London as some fleeting memory from years before. He starts to have sex with a woman at the top of an apartment building before slapping her around and insulting her; yet when Johnny leaves her we can only imagine her life as being what we saw from the window outside: nothing more. Johnny spends some time talking with a night guard, asking him lots of unanswerable questions and eventually ridiculing him about the dead-end nature of his life. The two walk around an office building at night, all the lights on, and if you've ever been to a public office block at night you'll know that feeling of not being with anyone yet somehow not being able to feel alone. The next day when the two meet again in a cafe the man has very little to say to Johnny, other than telling Johnny, simple and straight up "don't waste your life". The first time I watched Naked was a hypnotizing experience, although I didn't enjoy it all that much; Johnny only seemed to ruin lives. He wanted to pull everyone else down to his level, but watching it again I see Johnny isn't trying to ruin any lives because he thinks they've all already been ruined. He does manage to jump start someone's life though, even if we never find out to what extent, which may not be enough to make him a good person but does give him some purpose to go by. He is a Jesus figure in some ways, wanting people to change their lives for the better, only the world he's trying to change no-longer reacts to the promise of a better life or eternal happiness, the only person they do react to is someone who represents themselves at their lowest point.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Depressing Music

Around two weeks ago I came in from my first driving lesson, it having taken much less than the duration of one lesson to figure out driving doesn't come naturally to me. Or more precisely: I'm shit at driving, which put me in a mood for the rest of the day. I mostly just moped for the night; glued to a computer screen accomplishing very little, and listening to my new musical obsession, which I had discovered only that day, The Smiths.

My mother had recommend me The Smiths, which seemed good going off the strength of Elvis Costello, her previous musical recommendation. She advertised them to me telling me they had really depressing lyrics, which she found funny, which to be perfectly honest left me indifferent. Since then I've been making my way through their albums chronologically, so far listening to The Smiths and Meat is Murder, two very good albums.

My favorite song of theirs so far is "You've Got Everything Now" which has Morrisey throwing out such gleeful phrasings as "Oh what a terrible mess I've made of my life" and "I've never had a job because I'm too shy". Hell, even the romantic lines are bleak: "I've seen you smile, but I've never heard you laugh". They freaked me out a little on the first listen due to the bluntness; it was actually Johnny Marr's guitar work that had me listening on repeat. The hook is addictive and as the riff picks up towards the end the whole thing starts to feel uplifting. Not happy uplifting, but certainly a bright light at the end of the tunnel each Smiths song creates. It's an obviously weird combination; the music is very R.E.M while the singing and lyrics feel very Ian Curtis, yet it's that combination that has made me make Smiths listening a daily thing.

But it was impossible for me to listen to The Smiths and not start wondering about depressing music. Of which is there is so much. I don't believe depressing music is just for depressed people, mainly because that's not all there is to it; certainly people like to just rock out or admire, but so many people claim they listen to Joy Division or Nirvana or Alice In Chains because they relate, that they find solace in knowing people feel like they do. Only I don't believe this; people do feel better in the knowledge someone was sad just like them, and they probably release something hearing Johnny Rotten being just as fed up as them, but I don't believe that's it, I don't believe it's all about the people; I really do believe "depressing music", even it's very sound, does help people in some way.

Going back to that shitty day coming back from driving I could have very easily put on Katy Perry or Taylor Swift, or even The Rolling Stones or Outkast; serious artists but in no way depressing, but I didn't. I would have been listening to "22" or "Roar" and I would feel excluded from it all, not because the sound is vibrant and happy, but because that music tells you so simply what it is. There's no mistaking it for anything but cheesy, throwaway, very optimistic, party pop. The Smiths don't sound like this at all, they sound uplifting and suicidal all at the same time. I would listen to "You've Got Everything Now" just hoping to reach that high off of the guitar riff. Eventually I became numb to the other lyrics, and the depressing vibe of the verses. It felt like I had conquered the song, that I had made it uplifting despite what it very clearly was.

People say people suffering depression see things more realistically; that they skip past the usual bullshit and don't bother with the surface happiness because it's usually fake and manufactured. That's why the Smiths, and all depressing music, is great: because it doesn't offer happiness but it has the potential for. Most "happy" songs work by themselves but depressing music doesn't, it needs part of the person listening to work. That's why listening to this sort of music in a group doesn't really work; because it's hard to give away part of yourself while there's other people there. I'm not sure if "You've Got Everything Now" really picked me up that day, but it let me in, and let me be depressed with no questions asked.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Loosing Your (Singing) Voice

I sang as a child, maybe not a lot or not a lot for what the average child sings, but I did sing. I don't sing anymore because that scares me, to sing in public would only be forgotten by everyone there in a matter of minutes but the embarrassment would stick in my head for a long time, years maybe, or at probable worst all my life. But as a kid you don't give a fuck, not because your confident, which you appear, or because you think your good, which if you do or don't slips my mind, but because you have no way of knowing the social consequences. For the best people those don't exist anyway, but for the rest of us we don't sing in public. I can't handle any audience, not even myself. I tried to sing alone not too long ago, nothing operatic, some Nirvana, after all most people can't even tell what the lyrics of Teen Spirit are. But I sucked, I hated it and it made me swear to myself, without anything internal or external actually being said, to never sing again.

I only remember singing once as a child, in first school, two years before year one or "first grade" in what my school tagged "nursery". I sang ABBA (What else?) and don't remember the reaction whatsoever. I was instructed specifically at the start to not sing ABBA but I didn't know anything else. The song? Dancing Queen. Or Super Trooper. Maybe Mamma Mia. Lets hope to fuck it wasn't Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) but I wouldn't guess against it. The singing voice, which was summoned without thinking and with no ambition for professionalism must have been somewhat horrible, but I bet you your fucking house my enthusiasm came through. The sort only a real fan could summon. I couldn't do that with any band today, not Nirvana or Eminem or Outkast but I did it then for ABBA who had been programmed into my brain like an electronic chip.

And I bet you I didn't go up and down with the music, not in the same tones that the real singers did. I would have known the way they sang each syllable off by heart, at least if a four year old's brain can pick that stuff up, but I would have just tried to get the words out. All in my accent in my un self-aware four year old's voice. And it's easier to relate to singing that is someone singing what comes from them, singing it the way it comes out, than singing it the way they think it should be sang. In "Lucille" by Little Richard the man sings the line "I'll be good to you baby, please don't leave me alone" three times. On the first and third he says it too fast, it sounds like a mistake. You can tell what he's saying but it sounds like it's come out wrong while he tries to remember the words. But the second time it comes out perfectly; all the words are separate entities. The difference is noticeable, and it makes you hear him put emphasis on some words, it puts your attention on how he says things, not what he's saying. And Little Richard always got this, you can hear him trying to do this and that, like a craftsman fiddling away at work before your eyes and not like a piece of pre-created product that's already been worked out.

The Elvis version of Tutti Fruitti" doesn't work because he sings it too fast. In "Hound Dog" he adds a crackle to the singing but in Fruitti he's just imitating the black music that inspired him. The Little Richard (y'know, cos he rocks) version stretches it out just this bit longer. You can imagine little richie's body shaking along, but Elvis would have to go into spasm just to keep up with his version.

Singing comes straight from our bodies, unlike a guitar or keyboard which needs an instrument and an exclusive school of talent and training, but we can all sing, and we can all sing masterful lyrics, but none of us who aren't pros can whip out a guitar and fire out a ballad, not even a simple one. Singing is the most human part of music, the one we all feel like we can do ourself. In the movies the tragic hero who dreams of being in a rock band but can't cut it sits and uses a hair brush in place of a microphone and pretends to sing while David Bowie comes through the speakers. The nerdy kid in the teen comedy evokes the laughs because he's air guitaring. You can't hear personality, who a person really is beyond their immediate talent, from a miracle of a high note, but you can hear Little Richard, who he really is even if we never meet him and know him as a person, in those three verses.

When Mick Jagger first appeared in the early 60s it was like a floodgate opening, moving as far away as we could from opera singers and the low-baritone vocals of 50s rock'n'roll. Jagger's voice started out like an imitation of these singers - just listen to their first single "Come On" - but soon his accent really came through. It lurched left and right, more than older singers would have ever allowed, or would have been allowed to, but Jagger put a personality into the singing, which made sense when he and Keith Richard started writing songs; the lines were much longer yet the singing slower. Lou Reed, who inspired this post, perfected conversational singing. In "Sweet Jane" the lines don't even rhyme but they go with the music. By then it was hardly even singing, the lyrics simply fit the bill in the form they came out.

But Reed didn't sing all the Velvet Underground songs, and any band would be lucky to have a voice as unique as Mo Tucker's sitting at the back. "After Hours" and "I'm Sticking with You" are more for Tucker's voice than anything else. It's a gimmick for sure, but people do gimmicky shit with instruments and recording equipment all the time, the voice is no different. Surely The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" could be called genius, sang in complete garble, almost drunk sounding. It's the full acceptance of the voice as another tool. When "Smells Like Teen Spirit" released a few decades later the comparison was easy, but my favorite thing about most Nirvana songs is trying to work out the lyrics. For years I thought the line "And I swear I don't have a gun" was "I swear I don't have a god" to me it wasn't depressingly ironic, just punk rebellious. When Kurt Cobain sang a line it didn't rhyme because the words ended the same but because the general sound coming out of his mouth was pretty similar to the last. The lyrics themselves didn't matter in the moment; you got the emotion from his voice.

Yet now so few singers see voice as the same musical opportunity that Little Richard did, or the same wavering conversational piece that Lou Reed did; they don't use it as flexibly as Freddie Mercury did or use it with such power, personal power, as Michael Jackson did (or at least 80s Jacko did). Actually when was the last time you heard a rock musician really use their voice, and put it in the center alongside the guitars or drums or piano or whatever. Chris Martin stays in one tone, Arcade Fire all blurs together, and I don't even know if Alex Turner can get angry. Most other genres don't make much difference; rap and hip-hop has started sounding samey and is there any point bringing up mainstream pop?

Which isn't to say these guys are bad; Alex Turner has went from a typical Liverpool accent (used to create a conversational style on their debut album) to a smoother, more romanticized voice. Most of these singers seem more than serviceable, to the point they project across a stadium perfectly, something that Jagger always struggled to do. And there's some that seem to actually alter their singing voices: Kanye West is the best example. Which should be expected from such a studio-focused artist. He used auto-tune to purposefully emotionless effect on 808s and Heartbreak and in this years "Blood On The Leaves" he let the grand emotion in his voice entangle with the technology. Eminem doing his sarcastic singing, doing the full white trash, at the beginning of "So Far" is a good example of someone using their voice, someone who said himself he couldn't sing no less.

This wasn't about auto-tune. Mainly because this wasn't about note-perfect singing. Singing usually isn't the thing that draws people into music, it's not what makes people want to be rockstars. That's the guitar sounds and the lyrics you go over and over in your head. Mick Jagger's stage persona becomes an attachment of the singing, and that sure looks cool doesn't it? No, singing, the kind which was the mainstream only a few decades ago, wasn't about beautiful sound, it was about people who hadn't aimed to be singers being singers and bringing themselves into it. The singing would tell you more about the artist than the words did.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP2 Review

Out of all of the things my mind drifts to when left alone, what major force will rule art after post-modernism seems to be coming up a lot lately, and such a change must be due soon, right? The official term is apparently quasi-modernism, a response to the self-questioning nature of the current world in which art will move away from irony and individuality and go back to a more sure state. Eminem, who's success was born during the millenium angst era (blatant post-modernism's creative and commercial peak) used his stance as the biggest rapper (the most self-referential of all genres) of the time, or maybe even biggest artist of the time, to mock his own fame (and the famous around him) and confuse his image with the contradictions of Marshall Mathers, Slim Shady and Eminem. Yet Marshall Mathers LP2 is more like post-post-modernism; even it's name a spiral into the many nostalgic references that appear on the album.

Post-modernism came to major prominence, at least in the arts, during the 60s. The films of the french new-wave aimed to show the banal constructions of the movies Hollywood was churning out, and the James Bond franchise accepted the lunacy of the movies and just ran with it. Modernist films didn't work anymore; they didn't wink at their own absurdity - or bypass it completely - like these new movies did. It's harder to pinpoint music's evolution into a post-modern state; although the 60s too moved people away completely from the craftsmanship of classical compositions and let them see the real people striving to create their own personal masterpieces. This culture has of course exploded since then; the bubble burst in 2000 and since then no-one can even be influenced because everyone's influenced by everyone, and opinion's don't matter because everyone opinion imaginable has been posted online. Eminem, in response to his post-modern born success has spent the last few years almost regressing away from it, accepting his own position as king in the land of music, and making albums that look inside and aim for a more commercial, technically impressive sound. Yet his last two albums came off boring, a once hilariously punk artist "maturing" in all the wrong ways; yet looking back they don't seem stagnant from Eminem's lack of creativity but because he had too much: too many options, too many things that could be said, and too many ways people could react.

LP2 shoots off in so many directions that it has no image, although that doesn't mean it's directionless; it almost goes so far as to make fun of any art that has an image, of any art that doesn't self-comment on it's own self-commenting nature. LP2 has all sides of Eminem: the scary murderous Eminem last seen on the first LP ("My life will be so much better if you just dropped dead") self-hating Eminem ("Came to the world at a time when it was in need of a villain/An asshole, that role I think I succeed in fulfilling") pop Eminem (solidified by "Survival" created for the new Call of Duty, which works better without the 3 minute product placement of a video) and even the more ambitious, technical Eminem of recent times (the hyper-speed rapping of "Rap God" will be admirable to people not even well-versed in the genre). Eminem mixes in everything he can from his 10+ year reign, right from his references to Bill Clinton to his throwbacks to ex-wife Kim right to his claims that this is album is "the end of a saga" as if by putting all those thoughts in his head, those endless thoughts everyone one of the internet age and the gossip culture is forever flooded by, into one album, that maybe he can move past it and grow up. It creates an urgency to this album, more so than any other Eminem album, as if it's very creation is important to it's creator.

"Goofy" Eminem also shows up; if the other tracks all position Eminem as the center of the universe then these tracks take him back to a white trash american hip-hop kid on the streets, only a little faster paced and more confident. The best track to come of this is "So Far", also the best track on the album, where Eminem describes, among many other things, not being able to go into a restroom in McDonald's without being bothered because of his celebrity. Em switches from playing stupid with a groovy backing track (proving Eminem can write a hilarious track without the need for shock value) to vintage celebrity-hating anger with a guitar backing track.

Yet this offshoot of different styles would simply come off schizophrenic if the production didn't back it up. The disc is produced by Dr. Dre and Rick Rubin and the production creates a claustrophobic feeling, giving little space from song to song; no chance to breath or question where the album is going. The backing tracks don't stray too far from what was found on Em's tracks 10 years ago, although the sampling used is a mixed bag; "Berzerk" uses samples from Billy Squier's "The Stroke" and two from the Beastie Boys' first album. These work in the sense they add to the rap; the song was clearly written around them and would feel incomplete without them, yet in "Rhyme Or Reason" when the song is scored to The Zombies' "Time of the Season" it feels forced and Eminem almost manages to get lost in the mix at times. Although that shouldn't take away from what is for the most part a fantastic production; lots of great tricks but few of them ever intruding on the track. The indulgences: a fake news report that opens "Brainless", a sampling of "The Real Slim Shady" in "So Far" etc feel organic to Em's own mission to create his own murderous image; the opposite of the weird production effects of Kanye West's Yeezus, which's production seemed to dictate as much of the album as the music did (and to great results, I should mention).

The guest list doesn't appear as eccentric as you might expect. Kendrick Lamar, appearing on "Love Game" another highlight, is the best of the bunch, working against his normal pop attitude. Yet there is something noticeable about the way Eminem uses, and has always used, his female guests. Unlike the male guests, like Lamar, who organically come in and out of the track alongside Em as if it is as much their track as his, the female guests are sectioned off from Em's rap, as if as much a usable tool for the benefit of the track as much as the samples of songs over 20 years old. Skylar Grey appears on "Asshole" but is wooden, and a feels purposefully wooden; she adds to the track but has little place of her own in it. Em's best female duet was with Rihanna in "Love the Way You Lie" where both brought their different styles into the track. He re-teams with Rihanna here on "The Monster", a simple, catchy pop tune, aided by Rihanna who does little but play her part as instructed: repeating the chorus as required. Em still hasn't figured out, or maybe just plucked up the courage, to share control of a track with a woman. Yet it's Eminem himself who puts in the best performance here; his best in years. In the past few years I've likened him to Tiger Woods in which the golf champ played himself into boredom; no longer even registering as an interesting player. Since his comeback Eminem has seemed like that too; although there's a sense of fun to the raps here; as if there's something to prove again. There's a show-off style to the rapping, as if it's finally acceptable to be openly good at things again. The sarcastic digs and smart quips throughout the album should go up there with the man's best.

In the end it's impossible to get to the end of LP2 without questioning what you've learnt about Eminem on the way; and I don't mean the alter-ego's he conjures up: I mean the real Eminem. The closest comparison to Eminem's stories in which he wants us to see him as a fame-hating murderer is the life-as-performance-art of Kanye West. Yet West has kept it all up; I don't know if West is really an asshole but he's given me no other alternative but to believe it. Yet we've all seen the good in Eminem; ambitious but not quite arrogant, and very probably fame-hating but in a funny way and not as spiteful as in the songs. We know about Eminem's family and his retirement from music, and through all of the years the story Em told in "Kim" his most disturbing story, became only fantasy, yet it was made as fact. LP2 is the first time Eminem has accepted it all as fantasy, and what we get is someone playing with their own image and having a lot of fun with it. If you do need to single this disc down to one single Eminem it's "messy" Eminem, who here has made what is undoubtedly Em's most like-able disc yet.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Scary Things

As a child I never did go trick or treating, probably caused by one of the major problems with having no siblings: living your childhood the way your parents are living their adulthood, at least if you've got parents that don't know any better. So for me Halloween never meant scary; more fantastical. Witches and goblins and evil spells and anything the TV would feed me that I would think of as scary. Which is why I don't like much modern horror: all the torture porn and the paranormal activity trying to make everything too real. I prefer Stephen King's style of things: colorful and scary in it's slight removal from reality, as if his stories take place in a parallel universe where everything's been moved just a little to the left.

Which isn't to say I never got scared. I was scared of the dark and later on developed a fear of heights, only to find out that the majority of people from my generation have this fear as well. In the end you just brush past it like it was nothing. And I was scared of movies too: The Mummy was the first one, the 90s version with Brendan Frasier which looking back is actually a pretty solid action movie. Then there was They, a little know horror movie produced by Wes Craven that kept me up all night; although my dad told me later that it was a rubbish movie anyway. Identity too, with John Cusack, also pretty crap; at least in retrospective. And finally there was Jeepers Creepers 2. It's one of my favorite so-bad-it's-good movies now, alongside The Wicker Man, but at the time it scared me so much I picked up my bed covers and lied down in my parents bedroom, only to be quickly shouted out of the room. 

Yet the most damaging movie to me was Monsters Inc. I love Sean Lock's routine, that's a British comedian by the way, where he talks about how disturbing Finding Nemo is; his mother and all of his brothers and sisters are murder within the first few minutes of the movie and the film basically involves Nemo being kidnapped from his father and smuggled away across the world. In the end Lock contemplates just showing his kids Scarface instead. And it's always had me thinking about how disturbing so many kids movies are, especially the ones from Pixar, which when translated into the real world seem to be about some disturbingly adult themes. And Monsters Inc really did have a damaging effect: during one of my many days out with my grandparents as a child they took me to see the movie, which I loved by the way, then proceeded to take me home as normal. That night I couldn't sleep with fear my parents would run away and I kept creeping to the edge of the stairs to peer down and make sure they were still there. This bedroom-confined horror doesn't translate completely to Pixar's movie but it certainly triggered something in my brain because for the next few months (child's memory - this could have went on for well over a year) I would panic horrifically until my parents themselves went to bed; sometimes even shouting down to ask them to talk more just as a conformation to me they were still here. 

Strangely though I was always considered the tough one at school. Partly thrown on me because I was the tallest and would slowly develop the deepest voice of anybody while in my early teens. And plus I would tell of all the horror movies I'd seen and how I hadn't been scared, and would buy F.EA.R 2 like most of my friends and be the only one not scared. But these apparently scary things: some were the fantastical fluff that I connected with commercialised scaring, and the ones that tried to be real were always hyper-real. How could I be scared of Saw, even if it was a real man behind the mask and all of the killings were done by machinery and traps not magical powers, when I associated so many more disturbing things with real life. In films these would be referred to as "adult themes" and includes addictions and abuse. On the dvd of A Clockwork Orange, during one of the special features where everyone involved gets their ass kissed, one speaker (a critic maybe? or possibly another important filmmaker) explains why people found the movie so disturbing (disturbing enough to cause copycat crimes and get banned in the UK) and his reason was that people were no longer scared of monsters and ghosts - and we're talking all the way back in the early 70s now - they were scared by real world problems that could come knocking on the door; just like the gang in A Clockwork Orange who go around during the night, going into homes killing and raping. 

During the 70s this invasion of people's real lives was made into some great horror movies. Why all the creeping around and comical murder weapons, why not something as loud and aggressive as a chainsaw? Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What about sex? The thing that rattles more nerves than blood. The Exorcist. So you think your safe in suburbia; your a teen who doesn't need to deal with ghouls and goblins, schools a bigger worry. Halloween. All of these would be swamped by sequels and would all return back to the fantasy; becoming so structured that Scream would come along years later with the mission to evoke more laughs from making fun of the genre than create genuine scares. 
But most will have encountered these adult themes at some points in childhood viewing. I remember seeing the middle chunk of Martin Scorsese's The Aviator when it first came on TV; now that was a scary experience. Seeing Leonardo DiCaprio, and bare in mind Titanic was one of my favorite films as a kid, sitting alone in a car in some sort of construction zone trying to spell out the word "quarantine". The guy seemed broken, and unlike all those kids movies adventures where the problems would be fixed there seemed to be no fix for this guy. I asked my dad after that scene "is he going to be ok now?" to which he simply replied "I don't know". Those quick snippets of the adult world, peering outside of my parent-created bubble, were the extension of those early scares: it went from the mummy shrieking as he came to life for the first time to Leonardo DiCaprio trying to say quarantine.

Other mediums have a much harder job trying to scare you. I asked for a scary book as a child and was handed "The Others" by James Herbert, which I never read a word of. The cover looked scarier at the time to what in retrospective I guess was in the book. And video-games have it hard too; my favorite genre of game as a child, my medium of choice, was survival horror. I would buy everything I could: spurred on by Resident Evil and Silent Hill, two great franchises that in a moment of history repeating itself would become swamped under a barrage sequels and eventually just became part of the machine. I never did get scared by these games, but I do believe no other medium can create the atmosphere games can; the eery music of Resident Evil as you explored a mansion and the pixelated graphics of Silent Hill as you travelled around a fog covered town. Both environments, even through their open-ended nature, felt more claustrophobic than any film has yet managed.

Music on the other hand is one that I predict most people won't believe can be scary unless they've experienced it themselves. I remember cruising around Burnout: Paradise, still my vote for the best racing game ever, when the games soundtrack would sometimes throw "Would?" by Alice in Chains at me. I had heard of them through my intense Nirvana fandom during the years leading up to that date, but never heard the music. It was the heaviness of the music. The vocals, only half understandable, throwing out lines like "I know I made a big mistake, try to see it my way". The backing vocals fading into the background like some spectral being swooping over the stretched out images of madness the music conjured up. I doubt people are scared of music in the same way as other mediums - no intense shaking or crawling into their parents bedroom in the middle of the night - but it's an unnerving feeling, like those adult themes, that makes you feel like you shouldn't be listening. Alice in Chain's "Rooster" could easily be called scary too; listening, at least when I first heard it, felt like stumbling into some obscure band's page on the internet that was unsupervised by anyone else. 

But scary things don't last. Listen after listen and you find a comfort in these scary songs. As if the scariness would turn off anyone else you know, and that songs' a new hiding place where no-one will ever think to look. And The Shining doesn't feel as cold as it did when I watched it late one night years ago; I really felt the cold of the snow in that film back then, I saw it all from Danny (the young boy)'s point of view. But now it's about so much more; about a writer succumbing to his demons, about a mother and her primal instinct to protect her son, and about Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall and that time and place. As with all horror familiarity and greater knowledge make you befriend horror more than fear it.

What's strange is I miss the feeling of being scared; maybe it's all part of that innocent childhood we all wish to return to, or maybe feeling scared, I mean really scared: sweating and panicking and worrying for safety, it makes us all feel alive. More than any other emotion, because it's the one caused by our lack of control of the things around us. And that's why Halloween's so great, and so important, because it's that fantastical side of horror; and as much a protection of innocence as Christmas, only Christmas sticks around, starts to become more hassle of course, but it's a constant link to childhood: a day when everyone tries their hardest to preserve innocence whether there's kids around or not. But Halloween is lost, it gives way to real horror, to the fear of heights or parents running away or people coming into the house late at night, but for just a few golden years Halloween protects all kids from the real scary stuff.