Sunday, 23 June 2013

Yeezus: Reviewing an Ego

Out of all quotes our civilization has yet come up with my favorite remains one by Mr. Led Zeppelin himself Robert Plant who said that "Led Zeppelin's mediocre was better than anyone else's best." I'm guessing you hate that quote, as most do, but I love it; and not even ironically. The celebrity is a song and dance made for our enjoyment. Even in awards shows where these puppets are hoisted up by their strings onto stages and given gold that they can't even sell the cameras still role, why? It's all for us. So it brings me a smile when someone doesn't play along. Kanye West might have taken that mic out of Taylor Swift's hands and started rambling on about Beyonce's music video; but put a warm fire next to Taylor Swift for too long and once she's a melted sludge on the floor we'll know she was plastic all along. Even if you think Kanye West is an arsehole; by acting like he's a god among mere mortals the man has made himself seem very human for a celebrity; or at the least a very unapproachable human. 

Or maybe it's just an act; a guy who's in on the big joke and has decided to swindle the whole system. Although if he's as good a showman as he thinks he is we'll never know if it's one way or the other. Surely it doesn't matter anyway, it's the music that counts isn't it? Sometimes, although definitely not for West, who's went a lot further than self-referential lyrics to blur the persona he's created for himself and the music he makes. What is Kanye West's beautiful dark twisted fantasy? Probably a world where he gets to be rich and famous without anyone actually liking him; a glaring contradiction of a world where people all over hand over cash for music from a man they publicly despise. Maybe West is a distorted symbol of the fast-food culture the music industry has ground itself into; everyone comes and goes so easily, most people don't care who or what is behind their music as long as it gives them that instant buzz. West might not have a game plan but even subconsciously he's seeing how far he can push the boat of public ridicule out without drowning himself; and he's doing a pretty good job so far. 

There is of course a reason why people let him push that boat out; he's good at what he does. It's nothing new, it's the same strand of thought as "if we accept Elvis is a raging drug addict, and an all around bit of a dick, then I guess we won't be getting any more music from the king?" and the man must be good because he's got me, an ardent cynic of new music and rock fan, listening. I managed to Spotify the remainder of his cataloge a few days before Yeezus his new album released. His cataloge has large drops in quality here and there, but the man can sleep easy knowing he's got one of the most organic music careers ever. Doing an album like 808s & Heartbreak, a quieter album with personal lyrics all sang on auto-tune wasn't exactly the best option financially, yet neither was it one-for-the-fans, it was an album he probably had to make to progress personally. After Dark Twisted Fantasy, West could have made another lush sounding album, and like it's predecessor it could have featured the full spectrum of emotions, but instead he's made a raw sounding album that strips away all emotions and colours conjured up with MBDTF and has made what he needed to make. From the second you hit play you should be able to tell that this won't be as major a seller as most of his albums, and is harder to embrace than anything else he's done yet, but it's also the only thing I could think of that West could do after Dark Fantasy that wouldn't be repeating or cheapening past success. 
It's even visible on that front cover; at first seeming horrifically uncreative, yet fitting perfectly with the albums sound. Dark Fantasy had a style all to itself, so much that even the singles from that album featured drawings in the same art style; it's front cover was a blunt statement that helped paint the tracks on the album. What could have went onto the Yeezus box but a blank CD case? A picture of West maybe, although he would have to be alone, and in black and white, to really give the sense of how stripped back this album is. For a rapper, and one that frequently deals in the bombast of his samples, my only point of reference was the primal anger of Joy Division's Closer. 

My first listen of the album was a strange experience. It had already been uploaded to Spotify the day before, but it was late at night and I felt drowsy, and I think it's even more showing of my excitement for the album that I waited until the next day to listen; my head telling me that the album would somehow be spoiled if I didn't feel built up for it. But when I got to the end of the album for the first time I felt a strange disappointment; disappointed because it was a well made album yet I had only really enjoyed one track. A bit like being in the worlds best nightclub and not enjoying yourself. Even from that listen I could tell people would be lapping this album up, and I was just standing on the outside feeling left out. 

That one song I did like was Black Skinhead. It's the most raw thing on here; the song starts up with an opening drum beat (which my mother so kindly pointed out sounds like the opening of a Gary Glitter song) before Kanye starts to rap. The music in the background almost fades out of your mind, West's voice takes over the song. Like his voice overpowers everything around it. It's energetic stuff for sure, and each chorus builds up faster and faster, eventually being released by West's screaming of "and you know it, and you know it!", it shouldn't really work that well; the musical parts of the songs aren't even memorable and lyrically West is still doing his "I'm a monster" shtick. But I was playing this song on endless repeat; something about the anger of the song, about the way the beat in the background seemed to organically arrange itself in line with West's lyrics; I was drawn in. 

But that's only one song right? It wasn't until after I finished my first listen, and my endless repeats of Black Skinhead, that I noticed how much I liked this album. I went back to my playlist of musical comfort food and found I couldn't listen to any of it. It was all so manufactured and tampered with, no matter what I listened to there was a wall between me and the music. It had been put there by studio sound equipment and hot shot composers. I couldn't listen to anything else for the rest of night, I had to stick with Yeezus because everything else felt so dulled out. I say JD's Closer shared that same primal coldness throughout, yet that's a slow moody album, Yeezus is fast and angry. The lyrics here aren't the same poetic reflections that made up Ian Curtis' songs, here they're so blunt and personal that if some of them weren't so memorable I'd accuse West of making them up on the spot. 
I did manage to get back into other music (panic over) and I got around to listening to Yeezus again. In the end I still don't like all the songs here, at times it struck me as more of a mood piece with the whole nihilistic tone and minimalistic samples; for the first time in a Kanye West album the end message is the most important thing. It's an album you have to stay with for awhile; and not just because I went in expecting another Dark Fantasy, I'm saying that because there is a heart to this album; West is letting out an internal rage and with it letting out more secrets of that unlikeable persona, you just have to give it time to sink in. Album opener In Sight has West announce his return with a boast that "a monster about to come alive again" as if the man isn't even trying to hide that his whole persona is a lie, that he's really such an in-control guy deep down, and like many other lines in this album West doesn't even make you want to hate him anymore, he just straight-up asks for such hate instead. And for the first time West actually opens up on the contradictions of his persona with lines like "soon as they like you make 'em unlike you"; this is a man who understands the game, and knows it's a lot of smoother ride if everyone already has you pegged. 

The rest of the album is actually full on experimental. It's telling the most listenable thing on the album is Blood On The Leaves, which shows West is still getting better at this whole sampling thing; using Strange Fruits, a song from 1939 that's main subject matter is the lynching of black folk. It fits the slower pace of the song nicely, but like all songs on here the disorientating production almost makes this song scary, and I mean Alice In Chains style scary; when the ego-trip of I Am God completely cuts off into the sounds of West screaming and panting the album hits a claustrophobic high point; I'm guessing West wanted this album scary, and that he didn't want it dance-y, because even with the support of Daft Punk there's no real rhythm to be found here; as I say there are beats and spikes of emotion on here; it just takes a while for your brain to scan them out. Take a song like New Slaves, which for the first two thirds supplants itself as West's most direct attack on racism yet, but then the whole song morphs, suddenly the background musics has changed and it's Frank Ocean on vocal duties. At first I would have said that something like that was messy, not necessarily bad just unneeded and random, but looking back at the album nothing that well put together could really be messy. These strange tonal shifts start to make sense after a bit, and the weird aspects of this albums production start to make sense in most places. Not an easy album, but certainly an example of what a "rewarding album" is. 
The level of quality isn't sustained though; by the time I got to the last few tracks the experimental aspects had started to turn into a drag and the solid lyrics on the rest of the album flew right past my head here. The tone is kept up, I guess Kanye just ran out of ideas of what to do with it. Not that I cared that much anyway, there's great stuff on this album and if your into this raw style then you'll be spending a long time with this album despite it's flaws. 

All of this experimentation and even the odd line in reference to his family and (at the time) upcoming child doesn't mean he's done with blatant controversy though, or what would a line like "Eating Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce" be doing here. I don't condemn a line like that, because while this album's protesters will never admit it, the fact that that line is their purely for the controversy is exactly the point. 9/10 

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Duking It Out With Coppola's Dracula

The TV was giving me two options; it was either this or Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and unfortunately I've already seen Fincher's overly-calculated women empowerment ad. Not that it's a bad film, just long and downbeat, not what the alternative offered: a "romanticized" version of the Dracula story. A book I admit I've never read; and after seeing the main story beats I doubt I ever will. Not that the word romanticized meant much to me at the time; I went in expecting a slow paced period drama told with the use of some British stage actors and a lot of boringly detailed olden day sets. How wrong I was.

So what did I think of it? Well it's films like this that make me agree with all those naggers and film-elite that putting a point-based rating on a film is worthless. Because in the end while not a great film, Dracula is such a damn interesting watch. Not to any casual viewers; who would probably find it even more boring than I did, but if you happened to have been nerded out by the filmmaking gods like moi then I couldn't recommend Dracula more highly.

I do understand that the comments above may seem a little strange but I'll try my best to justify them with the most eccentric glee possible; after all a film this batshit crazy over the top deserves nothing less. Where to begin? I'll start with Francis Ford Coppola; it was already well know by that point that the man was a hack. The man who had arguably the best decade any director has ever had in the 70s lost it all to the flashing lights and excess of the 80s, and as the 90s dawned not even a third Godfather could save him. After that the man descended into a mediocre hell towards the end of the 90s (bringing Robin Williams down with him) which is probably why everyone forgets about his Dracula; a decent enough film that isn't quite Apocalypse Now, but is something very special in it's own little way.

In terms of direction I don't think any film has ever used the "go for broke" mantra to the same level of insanity. Every area of the film pushes itself to the peak, but it's Coppola who pulls out all the stops. Every directional technique you can think of is used here. He uses a swooshing camera (at one point it literally flies in and out of a piece of railing for no apparent reason other than to confirm the madness of the plot) he uses weird staging (around set's as extravagant as they come) which have characters swooping in and out in front of the camera, usually in a very arch way like that of a stage play (reminding me a lot of Terry Gilliam's Brazil). Coppola's camera tilts and tracks, and all manner of effects (including fantastically cheesy CGI) cause shadows to come alive and move around in almost every scene while the sets light up and wind blows through each stage so much that eventually you just have to except what a tongue-in-cheek comic book you've gotten yourself into. I suppose some will complain that just like the new Gatsby this is taking classic texts into the stratosphere, but the imagery here; all of it very impressively put together and chucked at you at an irrational speed, cares more about honoring the books descriptions than actually answering to logic and reason.

But this endless barrage of over-the-top imagery is what makes the film so watchable. The story drags towards the end, mainly because we don't care about any of the characters, and the vampire is so overdone nowadays that the simple fact it's Dracula means very little; but at least the production team never give up. It all hits a peak about halfway through the film; I won't go into the unneeded details of the plot; just know that there is three story threads going on at the same time already when Coppola seemingly decided the audience would definitely be bored if he didn't rev things up. That's why we get sped up first person sequences of a werewolf-looking Gary Oldman stalking our main characters, only for the film to skip to unrelated images of Dracula traveling by boat (all filmed in Terry Malick-esque soul searching beauty) while one of the films many narrations guides us through. The film is littered with sequences like this where the contents of the story and the characters take second billing to Coppola's style frenzy.

And don't think thats it. From the opening of the film Coppola re-uses the same actors to play different characters from a different time period Cloud Atlas-style. And just incase the ending of the film with it's mess of characters and set pieces was boring you, the man throws in a full on old-fashioned cowboy shoot out-chase sequence out of nowhere; and if that wasn't enough for you he films it during a fucking snow storm just to make sure the camera crew and editing team can go as crazy as they want with that shit. In other words what I'm saying is: why would you want to watch one of those critically acclaimed Michael Haneke dramas that take minimalism to the max when you could be spending your time watching a film were every scene transition has some sort of special effect or visual transformation, because god forbid could one scene just change to the next.

Not that any of that makes the film that great, just as I say, interesting. I say Coppola does all that crazy stuff near the end incase your bored, but in truth I was bored. It all gets too much, and the story is too long and spiraling to allow for anything this over the top to be sustained all the way through, not to mention hold our interest. Maybe I would find the same problems with the book. Or maybe it was Coppola. Although I doubt it; my interest wouldn't have held if this was filmed like a stale period piece (which I assume many imagine the book as) my attention would have probably wavered a lot sooner.

So what? It was a waste of such insanity? It had potential before Coppola did three lines of coke before arriving on the set each morning? I guess all I can say on the matter of quality is that all of the things that should be terrible (and if you slow down to think for a minute; are terrible) work in a way here, possibly because it's impossible to truly hate something trying that hard for your love.

Take the acting for instance; I don't think I've ever seen a film before where every actor was working on a completely different playing field. Gary Oldman is method-ing it up, Winona Ryder is doing her whole innocent-sexy thing while not getting involved in much of the drama, Keanu Reeves is fucking everything up with one of the worst accents ever attempted (Keanu is actually trying to be on that half of the actors with Oldman who are just blending into the background, but he ends up sticking out more obviously than anyone else), Anthony Hopkins appears as Van Helsing, giving a solidly committed performance to a very comic-book adaptation of the character, and even Richard E. Grant, who was in his element at the time as one of many actors in a long line of stage-trained Brits who get tons of supporting roles with big American directors after one big British breakout (he's basically the early 90s version of Benedict Cumberbatch) adds a decent amount of sleazy charm (because doesn't he always?) to proceedings. A huge mess of a cast all operating on different frequencies, but all so determined and most looking like they're having so much fun that in the end they make it work as a sort-of disfigured family ploughing through the mess.

Then again I think it was Richard T Jameson (good critic; look him up) who said that the problem with Coppola's images were that they lacked any deeper meaning or purpose. He was talking about Apocalypse Now but his words make as much sense here. Not that I'm saying he's especially bad at his job; if your gonna fuck up a load of trees and wildlife you might as well have a film as good as Apocalypse Now to show for it, what I am saying though is that I agree Coppola's shots have little extra meaning. They're great broad strokes, usually packed to the brim with beautiful sights and quite a lot of them swiftly moving across huge set pieces, but the framing of them means nothing. And that's true in Dracula; there's hugely impressive shots here, but that falls to the bombast of set designers and costume guys who have clearly been instructed that subtlety is off the menu. The only instance of framing here that I thought brought any greater meaning was in a scene where Oldman's Dracula tries to vampirize (?) Ryder's Mina by making her drink his blood through a newly opened cut through his chest. Coppola frames it like a shy porn director would frame a blow-job. We know what she's doing, but I find it hard someone would not think of it the sexual way. It adds an element of romance to the relationship between these two; and as far as I could tell was the only frame in the movie where Coppola told me more than he was showing me.

But I'm not trying to knock the man's directional style, I mean he's probably had enough of that already (and if Pacino can get a hall pass then I don't see why Coppola can't). But I found something special in his Dracula movie; it was strange to see a director go all out. To see a whole cast and crew all individually decide that this was the only way to adapt a revered classic. It's pretty common knowledge that making a movie is a pretty hard business; with all the time and money it consumes, so I understand why movies like this aren't flung out of studios like hotcakes. Hell, maybe it's because I'm an "aspiring filmmaker" and if I ever managed to kiss enough ass to get a film crew and a budget together, then I would never dare piss it all away like this. So I see Dracula not as an entertainment product, or even the cash-grab or oscar bait a modern Dracula would be, but Coppola's weird experiment; most likely one he didn't know he was making. You may even debate this yourself, but as you soon as you see Gary Oldman's hair, this giant blonde monstrosity that looks so big it might eat poor Keanu whole any minute, then you'll know this movie can't be anything else.

And what a beautiful experiment. Maybe good ol' Francis had been waiting to do a film like this for a while. Maybe after dropping all that fire on the natural world while listening to Jim Morrison sing there was only one way up, and that was this. Some won't understand this; but eventually things that are good only give you so much worth. Go, watch the classics, learn some shit, but after that you'll be left dried up on land. That's when you start watching some real crap. You'll make mistakes, don't worry that's all part of it. You'll even go through a phase where you watch an Adam Sandler film, say Jack and Jill, thinking you'll gain something from the experience, only to find out what a mistake you've made. But don't worry, you'll find your way, and when you do the wealth hidden behind a film like Dracula will become clear. Only then could a film that's been pumped full of steroids and sledgehammered into submission like this be of any worth. I'm sure every film fan has their breaking point when they realise that crap that tries to do something is better than boring quality; mine came when I watched Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Radiohead: The Band I Hate To Love

So there I am just sitting there flicking through the music channels when this really groovy song starts to play. Not that it has much of a groove, but it sounds good. Dark and emotional; definitely not a recent release. To be honest I'm diggin the video more than the song at this point; it's night time and we are in the POV of a car, a car chasing after some fat guy. Who the hell is the singer? At first I just accepted I didn't know which band was behind this song, after all if it was a band I like wouldn't I have heard this one before? I'm starting to think it's Thom Yorke, but I doubt it's Radiohead. Too light a touch for them, and too uplifting too. But then again, does Thom Yorke even do solo work? I've certainly never heard of any. Then Yorke's face shows up just as the third act of the song kicks in, it sounds really good, Thom's just going on and on about how he lost himself or something; finally some simplistic problems coming out of the guy. Then the fat guy stops running, the bastard's tricked us. He's lead a trail of petrol from here to the car and now he just sets us alight. As the (now on fire) car is backing up the info comes on screen; it was Radiohead after all.

I had to go and check it out after. Turns out the songs from OK Computer, the album at the center of the shrine of Radiohead worship. I've listened to all Radiohead albums thus far, other than Hail to the Thief, an album I gave up on many a moon ago and promised myself I would finish just for the sake of this post. It was actually with my acceptance that the song on the TV was so great - it was Karma Police by the way - that I had to accept I was a Radiohead fan, or at the very least a general enthusiast. I mean, I can go into as many forums and public discussions as I want and preach my hatred of Yorke and his disciples, but that still doesn't change the fact that I like a lot of their music, and that I've started listening to them an awful lot lately.

But why hate them if I like so many of their tunes? Well their just so damn snobbish ain't they? So arty. Not Velvet Underground arty, those guys did some weird stuff but they made it all very listenable; they might have came from that whole late 60s New York Warhol scene, but they were still a rock band at heart, and a very entertaining one at that. But to me Radiohead's main focus has never been on entertaining people. Don't get me wrong, I respect those who live and die by the artistic dream, but surely you can have a good time while doing it too? They ain't as snobbish as Pink Floyd got in the 70s, I hear Radiohead do a great live show, and I'm sure they do care for their fans in a way, but the way they care for their fans ain't the way I enjoy myself as a fan. Which is precisely why I'm so against calling myself one.

My first experience with Radiohead was on an online forum (I forget which one) where the discussion most likely centered on the best modern artists. These Radiohead fellas kept popping up a lot. It's all very possible that I'd heard the name muttered before, just never had the drive to go and check out any of their music, and while looking through this forum I still didn't; not until someone said something to the gist of "We're talking about a band that chose their name to be closer to R.EM. in the charts" colour me excited. Not that I like R.E.M. I doubt I'd even heard them either at that point, but I do love the idea of a band choosing their name for something so throwaway. Now I had a reason to check them out.

I went and looked them up on Youtube, confirming this was quite some time ago due to the lack of Spotify in this recollection, and clicked on the first song there: House of Cards. I was surprised, dunno what it was that made me think this was gonna be a very heavy band - probably because they're name sounded similar to Motorhead - but this song was slow and soothing, although not so much to be relaxing. What did I think of it? I sure liked the video, it still sticks in my memory now (I guess they just have a thing for good videos) and I had to agree, even in my young age, that this was well made music, not that I really enjoyed it all too much. It was ok. Actually the song seems to the least memorable thing from the occasion because I remember the comments on that video very well too. Not enough to go past paraphrasing, but not that I would need to since all comments worded the same thing only slightly different; that Radiohead was god's gift to music and what I was listening to was an all time masterpiece. Maybe it was? As a youngster I was strangely happy to except that maybe I was just too young to appreciate some things. It's only now that I realize that even at such a young age I was being very easy on that song, probably because of all the fakers in the comments section.

Circa 1993: A band with the name "On A Friday"
But that's far too negative isn't it? This is the band I hate to "love' isn't it? I could have just as easily named this "Radiohead: What The Hell Happened?" in reference to a band that has seemingly left all their ambition and talent in the 90s. But what a band they were in the 90s. Not to suddenly change course but I think I'm trying to write about modern music without doing a full on rant (I Think), and Radiohead is good a ship to board for this as any.

Not to go into the history of the band (mainly because I don't know it) but they started out as a few Nirvana knock-offs. Don't believe me? Just go listen to their debut album Pablo Honey; it's pure 90s angsty-teen garage band grundge. It matches Nirvana's Bleach in terms of quality and purpose, by which I mean a pretty raw and boring debut album that had one hit on it that got the band some attention. The hit in this case of course being Creep, a decently catchy tune that lots of people became attached to, most likely because they thought they were more tortured than they really were. It's not as loud or intense as the grundge scene, by then on it's last legs, but it was dark and talked about problems and got Radiohead's foot in the door.

Forgetting the fact it's opening sounds like elevator music that was rejected for being too drowsy the song actually turns into a solid piece of mainstream rock with lyrics that thinly attack today's culture and the modern way of life, Radiohead's sworn arch nemesis. The band made two more albums in the 90s; The Bends snatched them up out of the underground and plucked away some of their rough edges, what was left was some catchy pop riffs and the most simplistic (and happy - at least by Radiohead standards) lyrics of their career. It's the best collection of good songs the band ever put together; although Radiohead have always been more about the whole product - the tone and mood created - than the tracklisting, which makes me hesitate calling this their best.

They walked out of the 90s early in 1997 with OK Computer. As I said before this has got itself a reputation as Radiohead's best. Translation for none fans: Not many good songs (although Karma Police is a plus) but it does keep up the same style throughout; and that combined with lots of millennium-angst lyrics and Beatles-esqe studio experimentation managed to carry them to glory. Can I believe that some critics called this the modern day Sgt Pepper on release? Well I certainly don't agree with it, but I see where they're coming from. The only difference is on Sgt Pepper the experimentation and weirdness (which was of course a lot more groundbreaking in 1967 than 1997) felt more like the cherry-on-top of all the great songs. At least Radiohead tries to make lots of good songs here (although if you couldn't tell already my opinion is they failed miserably on that call) something they would start forgetting to do very soon.
I'll hand it to Radiohead; they have some damn cool artwork
But wasn't this my positive section? Well give me lenience, this is "the band I love to hate" I'm grappling here. The Bends is fun, Pablo Honey interesting, and OK Computer feels like a fun museum piece; an album that's influence is probably bigger than even it's too-blind-to-see-it fans think, although one that only truly comes to life in a few instances. The band did some weird experimentation, and I don't just mean with computers; they left behind normal song structures for tunes that found themselves naturally; so what if Paranoid Android sounds like a shit version of Bohemian Rhapsody? That's the closest comparison I can think of, and one of the easiest to make on an album that feels like a true original. And by that I mean a clearly-talented band doing something no-one else is doing. What I don't mean is doing random shit to be different, I could walk outside and bang my head off of a wall 58 times and be called "different" and it wouldn't amount to much. At least here the failures are from songs that flew too close to the sun and got burnt.

But I should probably note the good stuff here, of which there is quite a lot. Radiohead never really had a strong force behind them; but they used that lighter touch to make songs with real emotion. And they're well calculated too; this is about as far away you can get from the spontaneous anger of punk. Yet the beauty of all the Radiohead stuff of this era is that there's a care-free feeling to it; it was the 90s and the slacker generation was still in it's element. The lyrics, even in their angst, feel universal here. They're not for select fans or for "emo's" they're for everyone to wallow in. If the angst of the noughties (and noughties Radiohead) is introspective; only to be heard through headphones in blacked out rooms, then the angst they summoned in the 90s (along with Nirvana and Alice in Chains) was made to be yelled to stadiums full of fans suffering in the exact same way. Call the bands from this era depressing if you like, but if you've ever felt like shit (and were man enough to admit it) then there is a comfort here, a comfort in listening to loud energetic music that deals with problems that don't at all feel loud or energetic. Were Radiohead the best at this? To me they weren't, they seemed a bit too downbeat to appeal to someone downbeat, but they're lyrics were smart and relatable and they made a sound that still hasn't been imitated or ripped-off, and for that they deserve praise.

Fast forward; the year is 2000. Radiohead has just released they're fourth album (and the last one that would be any good) Kid A. It's not like this one is underrated or forgotten about; December 2009 and the endless swarm of best-of-decade listings that poured out of every publication that had ever even had the word "music" muttered around their offices showed that out of all albums released in the prior 10 years, it was one released only a few months into the new-millennium that was the best. It featured in almost every one of these lists, usually at the very top.

The best song on the disc was In Limbo, another hugely optimistic celebration of modern society that shows all that was reaching a high in the band at that point; and how it was about to fall apart. In Limbo starts with a slow, techno-sounding drum beat before hitting you with a wall of sounds. It implants a huge image in my head; I imagine walking through the digital mountains on that album's cover with spaceships and aliens floating around me. Yorke sings "I'm lost at sea" and that sums up the sea of possibility at Radiohead's fingertips at the time. The rest of that album is pretty great too; the same way The Bends took Pablo Honey's indie rock and expanded it with bigger ideas and a more lively professional sound, so too does Kid A take the studio experimentation and millennium angst of OK Computer and ride it too it's natural conclusion. In Limbo and most of the tracks on here have a heavy influence of studio technology; which ends up with Idioteque, a horrifically soulless song that lacks any band members actually playing instruments on it. Although like all things Radiohead since, this song has for one reason or another come to be treated as an innovative classic.

See; a land of possibility
And where else was Radiohead to go? There next album's scrutiny could be called unfair because of that fact the band didn't actually record anything new, instead for fifth album Amnesiac they used any un-used recordings from the Kid A sessions that were left lying around the studio. News flash: those are called B-Sides. Remember that great Led Zeppelin compilation album Coda that just used previously unreleased tracks and turned out great? Me neither; that sucked and this sucked big time. The fact that the best song on the whole album was called Packt like Sardines In A Crushed Tin Box speaks volumes.

They did rock, and they did computers, and all of their albums since have been awkward combinations of both. Hail to the Thief is an album I'm still unable to get through (sorry, guess I'm no good with promises) and that's mainly because those slow drowsy songs that made up all of the tracks I skipped past on their first four albums were used here to make a whole album here. What a god damn drone-on. In Rainbows was their "return to rock" and King of Limbs was apparently the sound of a band "bored with recording albums" but both to me sounded like a band trying to recapture their roots in rock'n'roll and getting sidetracked by arty ideas and new ways of releasing albums. I suppose that whole "pay what you want" model (hope there was a "nothing" option on it somewhere) will be pretty influential down the line, but as I finished off listening to In Rainbows in it's entirety on Youtube I couldn't help but feel like some part of the experience had been lost on me.

So that's Radiohead up-to-now. Any fans out there will no doubt disagree. I was brought up listening to early noughties radio, which for the people who bunkered-down and hibernated to what some will probably be remember as one of the great musical droughts, was a golden time (or at least my golden time) of hip-hop and R'n'B. It was a pretty uplifting time in music, not late 90s S-Club 7 cheese uplifting, but who the fuck wants that anyways? but still uplifting. So please excuse me if I don't fully appreciate Yorke's fear of the future. And as a music acolyte from the time I explored a black box with only the shiny word "Nirvana" written on top of it, especially excuse me if I don't come across as thankful that Radiohead has stuck to the arty side, never doing one for the fans. They might have went off road from where the mainstream was taking them but they never went off their own road. No weird concept album, no cheery christmas single, not even something natural and acoustic to take them away from those computer screens.
An ironic name, at least from my perspective
So really this is why despite liking a lot of their songs, I just can't stand Radiohead: they're the safest guys around. Forget all this crap about them being original and doing their own thing. Thom Yorke might not have 20 tattoo's and go home from every gig with two groupies around his arm, but he's a corporate sponge in disguise. Like Pink Floyd back in the 70s these guys aren't exactly cash whores (although the claim they haven't had any hits probably hasn't stopped these guys from buying vacation homes in the Bahamas) no these guys are worse. They want the music fans and the critics instead. Which means boring albums with no ambition, apart from in technical ways which stopped being relevant after Kid A.

What I'm saying is, I'll listen to their music and enjoy some of it, but they represent the false messiahs of music. Kanye West; you might not like him, doesn't matter; the man is doing things no one else is doing. And when he's doing them he makes his music feel fun and fresh. He makes innovating and just generally supplying fans with what they want look pretty fun. Radiohead are Pseudo all-time-greats, they are the Pink Floyds and Pearl Jams of today, while people like Kanye West and Arcade Fire are the Nirvanas and Beatles of today. Put any bands you want in those places, you get my point, Radiohead was once relevant but now has a case of the emperor's new clothes, and an album as smug in it's own poorness like King of Limbs makes me think they know it. These cowboys aren't even riding horses anymore, they're riding cows, and they're milking them for all they got.

Fast forward again and we're in present day 2013. The music industry isn't in turmoil, despite what the mad internet man keeps saying. This ain't no 1967 but there is still sure a lot of great acts around, going places no-one has gone before. And the best thing is most of these acts started up after the millennium. I'm not hating older bands; just accepting the fact that most artists - even the best ones - run out of steam eventually. Some break up or take extended breaks, few ever recapture past glories. Some end up having to quit for one reason or another. All I'm saying is, and this is too all those fakers and self called musical "elite" that think good music isn't good any more and self-proclaimed good music like Radiohead is all that's left: Radiohead never made good on their promise of the future at the new-millennium; but then again, who did? 

(Gone to wash my ears out with Jump The Line by Harry Belafonte, this Radiohead malarkey is fucking depressing ain't it?) 

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Django Unchained: Tarantino's Flawed Masterpiece

The thing that excited me most from the clusterfuck of pre-release hype that surrounded Tarantino's "Southern" (apart from a new film by Quentin Tarantino of course!) was a comparison made by one journalist between Francis Ford-Coppella's mess of a production Apocalypse Now and the 300 days Tarantino and his star-heavy Django crew spent in the corn fields of the south, battling off on-set disasters and drop-outs from some it's biggest stars. There is of course different types of good movies; plain old well made one's (Tarantino's usual bread and butter), and messy ones; the sort of films that go a bit overboard, that just manage to skim the mediocre barrel and end up a lot better because of it; the category Django Unchained most easily falls into.

These messy films will always be damned to a lot more hate than the usual classics; but where would the medium of film be without them? Not that Tarantino ever set out to make such a film as this; the original script, which was leaked before the film even graced our screens, was a very different affair. The problem here isn't what could have been, it's that the changes are glaringly obvious. There's an interlude towards the end that interrupts the whole flow of the film. Not that it ruins it, but a film this big and ambitious (you've got to find an extra three hours for this baby) starts to feel even messier than it already is when the writer-director starts to make last minute re-writes and combine characters together.

Tarantino might be an eccentric when it comes to personality, but the man's always had a great level of restraint. His apparent blood fetish hasn't actually materialized for real in any of his films until this one; where his previous exercises in cutting the camera away from the violence and focusing more on the build up than the climax are nowhere to be found, here he can't get enough of the red stuff. Not exactly a bad thing in the majority of places, it's not like the western is the genre of subtlety, but at times the cowboys getting blasted away just become faceless goons, only there to be killed, and of course any action scenes where the people fighting are pointless means the action scene itself is pointless. Nevertheless Tarantino adds enough flare to proceedings that you rarely care; even if you might sometimes wish he lived up to that apparent Sergeo Leone influence a bit more.

But it's that expression of "Tarantino does it well enough that it doesn't matter..." that I'm getting at. Nobody cares about that abrupt tonal shift near the end of Apocalypse because when you get there all of the jungle's beauty surrounds you and brings you to a larger-than-life Marlon Brando; an offer you just can't refuse. It's the same here. I didn't mind that Tarantino turns the movie; a serious one (even if it does continually flirt with twisted humor) into a pure exploitation flick at the end, because hell, this is one good exploitation flick. I didn't mind that the ordering of some events felt out of place (or some just felt rushed in) because the positives of my experience far outweighed the negatives. Even many of the side characters, which would have each gotten their own spot in the sun in any of Tarantino's previous features, are given nothing to do but stand around and look menacing (looking at you Goggins) but the core characters are all so well written and developed that I didn't much care. Surely that is the very definition of a "flawed masterpiece".

But where the hell are my manors? I should probably have explained the premise by now. Oh yeah that's where I left them, in the fucking rental store where you can watch this, or atleast bite the bullet and watch the damn trailer. It's a tale of this guy called Django trying to find his dearly beloved; Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who haunts Django (a never-better Jamie Foxx) throughout the film, but is little more than the damsel in the distress once she is found. Although once again not really a problem, people wanting a real romance have (very obviously from the outset) came to the wrong place. It's the story of Django and the German dentist-tunred-bountyhunter Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who frees him. There are of course detours throughout their adventure, but the story is simple really, rescuing Django's wife from plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio; finally embracing a darker side that seems to trump his tortured-hero persona) by going to his slave plantation of slave plantations: Candieland.

So firstly what's good; Tarantino's dialogue starts in a bit of a funk (sounding stilted and self-aware) but quickly gets better and better, building up to the film's centerpiece; all of the key players around a friendly diner table that slowly falls into oblivion. The dialogue here is just as smooth and quotable as anything else the man's ever written. The whole film just looks good too; Tarantino continues to baffle some with his choice of Robert Richardson as cinematographer, who's pristine shine doesn't seem to fit with Tarantino's grundgy 70s tendencies, yet I think it fits. Tarantino's always been great at framing shots and showing off a knowledge of the craft, he's thankfully never took that to boring extremes (ala Paul Thomas Anderson) and usually seems more focused on the writing and story anyway. Here his directional skills, here meaning his framing and staging, feel a little more on the fly, but they're still solid enough to keep a nerdy film fan like me impressed; and it's that attention to detail that makes Richardson the right person to capture these gruesome tales on celluloid. On top of that you have a great action film, with another very memorable soundtrack (I was straight on the internet finding out what that ending track was) and lots of the cute Tarantino-isms that fans will be expecting (just look for all the character names and ironic references)

And what about the bad? I did bill this as a "flawed" masterpiece didn't I? Well there are some problems. The film would have probably felt a lot less rough around the edges if all the things Tarantino had planned to put in actually saw the light of day. No, I'm not making a criticism based on a comparison with the script, it's simply that the things the movie misses out illuminates the finished films biggest flaws. A big action set piece, the one with all of the faceless bad guys, leads into the plot detour that makes you feel like Tarantino is just back-tracking, just stalling for time until his big finale. Not to mention that both Kerry Washington and Walton Goggins originally had more to chew on than the simplistic archetypes they have here. Sacha Baron-Cohen was originally cast as a deranged slaver who sets Broomhilda's story in motion. And her character and the film itself would have probably played itself out more naturally if this, as well as some other disappearances, had been included. Then again, on second viewing my brain had just accepted the film for what it ends up being. It becomes less about being better or worse than the movie Tarantino originally planned and more that it's just different; definitely more comical than what was originally planned, but no less watchable.

And with all the hype that's went into them then I suppose I should mention the cast. Foxx is as cool and controlled as Leone's Man With No Name, just with the act of being a freed slave adding a bit of an extra dynamic (and some nice clothes too). Samuel L Jackson playing Candie's house slave Stephen also gives us one of the films best performances. It's the first performance I can remember Jackson doing in years that doesn't have him playing himself; I had forgot how nice it was to be reminded every few years that this guy could act. As I mentioned before many actors here are underused, and you can add another one of Tarantino's career-revivals in the form of Don Johnson to that list. Not bad, just no standout.
Fun Fact: Thats a real cut open hand right there
The real attraction here though is just seeing DiCaprio being an massive prick. It's ten years since Catch Me If You Can, a film where he showed he had a sort of old-fashioned movie star charm. It was why he and Tom Hanks were such a top pairing in that movie. Unfortunately since then the man has dropped any aspirations of Carey Grant he likely never had, and started gunning for the role of being the next DeNiro. The results haven't been abysmal, just very shout-y and not much else. In Inception he had the charisma of a wooden plank. Not at all the cheeky grin of doing wrong he had in Catch Me If You Can; in that film he was a sort-of family friendly Alex from A Clockwork Orange, and it's only ten years on working with Tarantino that he's managed to follow on from that. It's his first non-lead in a while, and he doesn't even appear until nearly half way through. But his performance, while not the deepest (Jackson's character has a lot of complexities if you slow down and think about it), or even the smoothest (Waltz earned his oscar), he is brilliantly wicked, and made even more so by DiCaprio's penchant for playing the hero.

So where does that leave Django standing in Tarantino's filmography? I'd actually vouch for it being one of his best. It doesn't have the immaculate plotting of Inglorious Basterds, but Tarantino did spend roughly 10 years writing his self proclaimed "masterpiece", and while that film did feel like it was made by a super-human who could see all situations from all angles, it also left the film feeling a bit stilted. In Basterds everything played out because that was how it's writer-director had pre-determined it through endless re-writes and long-planned-out changes. Django in comparison feels like a breath of fresh air; a piece of pure spontaneity. Tarantino clearly didn't see from all angles this time, but it doesn't matter because this is an enjoyable journey, filled with dark humor, interesting characters and hilariously over the top gun battles.  9/10

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Daft Punk: Random Access Memories Review

Random Access memories has been touted as a celebration of music itself, a confusing title if you ask me, especially for such a complex album. It's the sort of album that needs more than one listen, and definitely needs more than one listen if your a Daft Punk fan; if you think you know what Daft Punk delivers then it will take a while to realize they can do a lot more. But the reason such a title confuses me so, is because I didn't know music, true music, could be celebrated this way. Punk music was a celebration; it took music back to it's simplest form and was more about the emotion (usually anger) created and less about the technical mastery. And it's technical mastery, albeit mastery done with finesse, that RAM is all about.

It's also about the past. Most specifically the 70s. Not that this would fit alongside the Zeppelin's and Floyd's of that time, but that the candid duo have enlisted help from a number of musicians; many of the from that time, although the comeback kid of the record is Pharrell Williams, who's vocal power is (at least for me) a great release from those damn robot voices; what has seemingly became the biggest barrier between me and Daft Punk fandom. The 70s influence comes in through the bigger focus on physical instruments. It's still dance music (some of it anyway) but the other dimensions coming into play, the biggest of which is the guitar, meaning this is a more natural style of dance music. The computers are still their, but this music actually sounds like it's coming from actual human beings and not robots. There's real emotion in this music. That's not to say the computer generated anthems of Daft Punk yore where emotionless, but they had a slick, all too perfect emotion to them; like the band pressed a button to gain this sort of response, and then this one, and so on. Here the songs, as crisp and clear as the finished production sounds, has a realness to it.

And the realness and emotion that is summed here is a lot more downbeat than the duo have hinted at in the past. In songs like Touch and Within the very facets of living for their robot persona's are questioned. As lyricists this is Daft Punk's highpoint. The album may not be a concept album but there is a common thread running through it; sort of a mini-narrative that deals with the want of machine to become living. Yet what's interesting is 10 years ago such a narrative would have played out with an inspiring album about becoming alive, most likely through the help of a disco-friendly beat. But here the band drowns such themes in sadness. I wouldn't ever say an artist had "matured" which is to say their older work was not the work of a mature artist, which in this case it clearly was; Daft Punk always knew what they were doing, but here their aim is completely different. They do deliver their dance records; you've already heard Get Lucky, and Doin' it Right brings Daft Punk back to the dance floor, and believe me these tracks aren't done in any sort of obligation, their inclusion is as organic as the rest of the track listing.

But if their not dancing then what exactly are they doing? They actually go so far in the other direction sometimes that they permit themselves to be an art band, although they will never get that title as they never stop the beat; even on the most un-commercial of tracks the duo never quite give up on the idea of fun. Giorgio by Moroder is the most obvious of these songs, with the title man himself (another 70s link) talking about his music innovations for the first half of the track. The techno track that Daft Punk puts on to support Moroder isn't half bad, I just wouldn't ever listen to this track for please. Nor for the obvious craftsman ship (or at least nice idea work) thats going into it, to be honest. What I'm trying to say is; a song like Giorgio by Moroder so perfectly fits into the framework set up for this album that you forgive the fact that it's completely unlistenable.

Truthfully, none of this would mean anything if the album wasn't a fun listen. It's certainly not an easy one at times. And Daft Punk, not for the first time in their careers, manage to subvert the hype away from what everyone thought they were good at. But in the end only half of the stuff here is still going to be on your playlist after your initial listen. Get Lucky is the best track on here, and despite being the album's commercial watermark it's also the best example of what this album's about overall; it's not dance music but you won't find it hard to dance to. Williams also gets to be a part of the next most-catchy song in the form of Lose Yourself to Dance, while Fragments in time is another song with a very catchy disco beat that blurs itself into naturalistic music.

Looking back I wouldn't listen to a track like The Game of Love, a slower paced song with a twisted sort of romanticism at it's core, again. Not that it isn't good music making, it just doesn't invite me in. And tracks like Motherboard and Beyond left my conciseness as fat as they entered. But to critique these tracks on the basis of simply not being memorable dance anthems is to miss the point ever so slightly; Random Access Memories, one of the best albums to come out in years, is a lot more than the sum of it's parts.

But to end this review I'll go back to the beginning of this whole story; not the exact beginning where Daft Punk entered but when I did. I'm no Daft Punk aficado; not even a fan (although this album has made me consider that standing). I do have a friend at school who's a fan, a sort of Daft Punk to my Nirvana; the reason I ended up hearing the album a few days before it's release when it was released for free on the internet. And also the reason why that listen wasn't an exploration of a new album but an obligation to listen; to see what my friend was on about, and to be able to join in the conversation. It wasn't until the albums actual release when I started to treat this album as an entity of it's own; a testament to the extra layers Daft Punk have put on their music this time (or maybe it's just empty pseudo art, so well done that nobodies noticed?), but also telling of how much this album doesn't attempt to be listenable; the starting place for Daft Punk is still 2001's Discovery.

Coming away from the album my first point of reference was Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. That wasn't a dance record, and it was by a band very invested in their live instruments, but it was also an album very clearly made (and made better) by a studio sound system. But unlike so many albums that feel over-polished (leaving them lifeless) Daft Punk have got right what the Floyd boys got right back in the 70s; they haven't added any over-complexities to the sound, neither have they washed away the human-aspects of the music, they've simply sprinkled some magic all over this album. It's an album very clearly made by humans, but then again, surely only a couple o' robots could have used their metallic wizardry to craft a record like this. 9/10