Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"Look Good, Feel Great!" E.P. - The Rrrrrs (2007)

One of my resolute favourites in the multitude of bands playing the local basement-circuit, The Rrrrrs (roll your tongue) are what life might look and sound like if you washed a jumbo bag of Skittles down with two crates of Irn-Bru. The gaudiest, trashiest, most in-your-face explosion of pure pop imaginable, this knockabout quartet first came to prominence at Warwick’s Battle of the Bands tournament in 2005, where they surprised everyone by scampering away with their heat. Acting as a judge that night, I found myself warming to the band before they’d even played a note when, in a hugely endearing piece of improvisation, they mimed along to one of their own records during set-up. The ensuing performance was an absolute car-wreck, but even the most curmudgeonly soul would be hard-pushed to deny they had something - if memory serves, I gave them the full-monty for stage presence, entertainment value and songwriting. When we read out the final verdict, the numerous technical perfectionists in the audience almost had kittens. “But they can’t play!”, the masses squealed. “So what?!” the band replied, all the while bouncing around like errant Ribena berries.

There’s no doubt that The Rrrrrs are rough around the edges: their live shows are unruly, chaotic affairs which regularly degenerate into playfighting and complete musical meltdown. However, I think they’re much cleverer than they come across - there is a calculated shambolicism to their performances which suggests an astute sense of mischief at play (guitarist Rowan Gifford in particular is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist whose abilities are better showcased in jazz quintet Jaffa Rose). Above all else, they have a palpable onstage chemistry - perhaps the best comparison to be drawn is with The White Stripes, whose considerable wattage is generated not through total cohesion but a dynamic personal interplay. Rather than simply being content to exist in a mire of wilfully sloppy pub-rock, I would argue The Rrrrrs pull the ultimate bait-and-switch on their audience: they can play – they just choose not to.

Much of your tolerance for the band will undoubtedly hinge on whether you’re able to hack the antics of their eccentric frontwoman Sharliza Rahman. Last time I saw them play, her escapades involved playfully kicking her bassist in the nuts for playing in the wrong key, and mock-fellating a mic-stand. You’d think that she’d be different offstage. She’s not. She’s mad as a box of frogs.

She’s also a true star-in-the-making. Charisma, the X-factor, star power, the elusive ‘it’ - call it what you will, this girl has it in spades. Love or hate her, there’s no denying Sharliza’s distinctive presence: on record she sounds like a sexed-up snake-charmer, supplementing her oddly robotic helium-drone with the whooping vocal tics of Karen O. Like fellow rabble-rousers The Moldy Peaches, the band’s attitude is pure punk-rock, shot through with a joyous don’t-give-a-fuck mentality. Their songs are frequently daft but achingly bittersweet; stylistically they remind me a little of The Ramones, tacking what are essentially old-fashioned pop hooks onto a contemporary mode of delivery (in this case, a raucous hybrid of The Noisettes and The Detroit Cobras).

Their recent demo Look Good, Feel Great! serves as a fairly accurate example of the divisive approach which famously resulted in a journo friend of mine describing them as “jaw-clenchingly annoying” (a sentiment which bassist Les Pemberton promptly appropriated as his sign-off on internet forums). Opener Is That Your Underwear on the Floor? is the band’s finest number to date, supplementing its early-Cure guitar tones with dizzying harmonies and glimmering steel-drums. By contrast, the maddening My Valentino will either make you want to bop along like a cunt or tear your hair out (I’m still undecided, though I’ll probably give them the benefit of the doubt at this stage). Always a highlight of their live set, closing track Money is the most diverse and interesting of the three, zipping from style to style with such barking enthusiasm that it sounds like Joy Division one moment and Minor Threat the next. Keep listening at the end and you also get a re-recorded version of their signature tune - the aptly-titled I Feel Great - on which we get an indication of the true heart that beats behind their colourful showmanship when Sharliza coos, with total sincerity: “I feel great, you are wonderful, I’m happy I’m with you / Over land, under water, in the sky and outer-space”.

Be it through their kinship with upcoming alcopoplets The Ripps or simply their unflappable high spirits in the face of such hostility, I have no doubt that The Rrrrrs will piss everyone off by being the next band in the area to land a record deal and start bothering the underground press. In all honesty, this EP doesn’t particularly do them justice: you really have to see them live to appreciate the essence of the band. They
re like a direct injection of sherbert into the bloodstream, a goofy rock’n’roll cartoon designed to leave you smiling from ear-to-ear. The Rrrrrs are everything pop music should be. They are Prozac in musical form.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

ALBUM: "The Animal Years" - Josh Ritter (V2, 2006)

A critical darling in both his homeland and the Republic of Ireland (where he was asked to support The Frames after they spotted him at an open-mic night), Josh Ritter has been winning hearts with his distinctive brand of countrified folk ever since the release of 2002s breezy sophomore outing Hello Starling. This, his third and most accomplished LP to date, unfolds at a shuffling, leisurely pace and plays like a dusky trawl through the history of Midwestern America.

Opener Girl in the War gets the album off to a glorious start, building on a plodding four-note motif which twinkles behind a yawning crescendo of cymbals like the hopes of a fledgling nation laid out under a sea of stars. The song is pure poetry, creating its texture from the conjunction of different sounds rather than the lyricsimmediate meaning. Ritter’s voice has a hushed, smoky quality which conveys a combination of sage-like world-weariness and muted emotion. “Now talkin’ to God is Laurel beggin’ Hardy for a gun”, he croons with all the hurt of a stunted frontierman pining for his beloved; “I got a girl in the war, man, I wonder what it is we done…”

Next up is Wolves, which gallops onto the scene in a dust-storm of tangled guitar-lines and chiming piano as it mounts an urgent race for the prize across hazardous terrain. It’s quickly followed by another standout track, the graceful Monster Ballads, whose chugging locomotive rhythm and laureate’s eye for 18th century Southern ephemera (churches, bonnets, steamboats) suggests that Ritter may yet become the natural successor to Mark Twain. Lillian, Egypt and the half-whispered candlelit vigil Idaho continue the journey across America’s arid desert landscape, the former all silent-cinema melodramatics and evocative growls of “The last time I saw her, she was tied to the train-tracks”. Indeed, by the time the dreamy, soporific In the Dark brings the first side to a hazy close, you’re left in no doubt that you’ve just experienced something truly special – track-for-track, it’s probably the strongest opening sequence to any album since Nirvana’s Nevermind.

Admittedly against such an inspired and sure-footed first half the rest of the album (though wonderful) rather pales by comparison, but there’s still time for one breathtaking last gasp in the form of the epic Thin Blue Flame, an image-heavy modern parable which piles metaphor upon simile while the instrumentation builds to a crashing climax. Here, as on the rest of the LP, the lyrics are composed with admirable literary flair (“Cicadas electric in the heat of the air”), spinning paradoxical visions of vengeance and liberation, redemption and sin: “If what’s loosed on earth will be loosed up on high / It’s a hell of a heaven we must go to when we die”.

In these moments of cogent insight it becomes apparent that Ritter has crafted a unique world, one populated by pioneering noblemen and damsels-in-distress whose “eyes are like champagne: they sparkle, bubble over and in the morning all you got is rain”. A rich tapestry of historical mythology infused with a heart-on-sleeve romanticism that is genuinely hard to fault, The Animal Years is the kind of thing Ryan Adams might be capable of producing if he weren’t so intent sabotaging his own career by behaving like a petulant child. Comprised of eleven tracks of rare depth and compassion, the end-product is a truly extraordinary achievement which evokes strong comparisons with Bruce Springsteen’s seminal Nebraska (- yes, it’s that good). Go buy the fucker now, and avoid the trauma of being without this magnificent piece of modern American art in your life for another day.

ALBUM: "Plans" - Death Cab for Cutie (Atlantic, 2005)

There are three types of people I fundamentally distrust in this world: those who listen to 5ive and N’Sync in their bedrooms without any hint of irony; grown men who wear wigs; and people who describe Death Cab for Cutie as ‘emo’.

This perception of the band has always flummoxed me. ‘Emo’ (as perhaps best characterised by early Taking Back Sunday) is discordant and abrasive; by contrast, Death Cab are the exact opposite: absolute ear-candy. For me, the Seattle quartet are the most literate, artful and intelligent pop band at work today, making music as rich and cerebral as it is emotionally affecting. Their major-label debut Plans – released to a slightly cynical response from the indie bloggerati after The O.C. turned their heroes into a convenient stereotype for cartoon teenagers – is their masterpiece.

Perhaps the best-produced album in terms of sheer listenability since Jimmy Eat World’s ground-breaking Clarity, the band’s lush orchestrations bring a widescreen cinematic texture to frontman Benjamin Gibbard’s incredible songs. There is so much attention to detail paid to the instrumentation of each sound that the cumulative effect is a swirling cacophony of technicolour - best evidenced on the album’s ravishing opener Marching Bands of Manhattan, which cloaks its mathematical refrain in layers of interlocking melodies to create a structural architecture that few bands can match.

However, what really raises Death Cab above their contemporaries is Gibbard’s mastery of lyrical metaphor: his songs are always about one thing on the surface and something else entirely underneath. Nowhere is this more apparent here than on the stunning I Will Follow You into the Dark, as touching a proclamation of eternal devotion as you are ever likely to hear. On Summer Skin he relays a tale of lost love with such evocative precision that it yields a ghostly portrait of memory, loss and regret. Someday You Will Be Loved reflects on past cruelties from the vantage-point of a mature adult perspective, traversing barriers of time and physicality as he rights the wrongs of his frivolous youth. Later, he describes a fading relationship in terms of two faces turned away from one another, “Like brothers on a hotel bed”. (Indeed, equally worth investigating is the Directions DVD, a series of visual accompaniments which lends the album whole new layers of resonance).

There honestly isn’t a duff track on here, from Crooked Teeth’s lovably sozzled ramblings to the lurching barroom-cum-electronica of Different Names for the Same Thing. However, my favourite moment comes towards the end of the album in the waltzing coda of What Sarah Said. Easily the most sorrowful of the litter, the song muses on notions of empathy and betrayal while its author waits in a sterile hospital wing for news of a waning loved one. “Love is watching someone die”, Gibbard broods, before stepping back from the microphone to render his next pronouncement only partly audible: “So who’s going to watch you die?” It’s an incredible moment, one that encapsulates everything that is great about this band in one fell swoop: understated, profound and almost unbearably moving. Like the album itself (which takes a good 10-15 listens before you can even begin to edge beneath its surface), time will hopefully reveal Death Cab for Cutie to be among the most valued American treasures.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

SONG: "In Competition for the Worst Time" - Idlewild (Make Another World, 2007)

It’s often said that you always hurt the ones you love, so it’s with a certain sense of regret that I say that being an Idlewild fan can be an extremely disheartening business at times.

The band’s gradual metamorphosis from frenetic Edinburgh noiseniks to purveyors of sprawling indie anthems hasn’t been entirely without merit - on the contrary, over the years they’ve improved dramatically as songwriters and the band’s unwavering control over their evolving musicianship consistently impresses. Indeed, it’s also worth noting that it’s not as if the transformation was never signposted: one of the key elements that distinguished their early work was the snatches of snotty melody which underpinned even the most borderline-unlistenable thrash-along like Self Healer. Until recently, however, they’d seemed virtually unrecognisable from the band that used to decimate tiny stages while livewire frontman Roddy Woomble lay on his back screaming out the lyrics to You Just Have To Be Who You Are. Back in the day they were everything other British bands weren’t – punchy, incendiary and abrasive. Equal parts chaotic Dischord punk and Reckoning-era R.E.M., both live and on record Idlewild were a ferocious ball of uncontainable energy: furious, unpredictable and frequently hazardous to be around.

They were also perhaps the most distinctive-sounding group in Britain, both sonically and in terms of their conceptual framework. Like key early influence Nirvana, their chosen moniker (a reference to the secret meeting place in Anne of Green Gables, and a word cleverly split in two on the front and back of their tour shirts) perfectly summarised the conflicting factions of the band’s schizophrenic personality. Furthermore, there was always something intriguing and faintly menacing about the way their songs would hinge around one or two key phrases, with the overall meaning constantly twisting and turning as if trying to break free from its own self-imposed constraints (check out Low Light, the closing track on Hope is Important, for a perfect example of this conceit). There was an almost malevolent precision to Woomble’s lyrics as he applied a calculated and methodical spin to what might have otherwise been pedestrian topics: if he wrote a love song, for example, you’d never know it as the sentiment would be heavily disguised beneath a series of impenetrable abstractions.

However, the departure of wild-man bassist Bob Fairfoull in 2002 (allegedly due to a combination of excess and creative clashes over the band’s increasingly mellow direction) marked perhaps the key moment in Idlewild’s history. Their third full-length album The Remote Part split opinion down the middle amongst their core fanbase: whereas some praised its more measured approach and moments of undeniable beauty, others mourned the loss of the spark which originally made them such an exciting prospect. In reality, the album reflected the best of both worlds, with fizzy rockers Out of Routine and A Modern Way of Letting Go rubbing shoulders with more considered affairs like American English and the magnificent title track (which brilliantly married soaring guitar-lines to the mumblings of local poet Edwin Morgan). However, even the most adoring of fans would be hard-pushed to admit that it lacked the brooding volatility of their previous efforts.

It pains me to say it, but for a band once famously described as sounding like “a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs”, over the last few years they’ve sounded more like an old granny sat at the top of the stairs knitting. By all accounts, 2005’s Warnings/Promises was a placid, thoughtful record with the mark of ‘quality’ stamped all over it – the NME awarded it 9 out of 10 and proclaimed it a surefire bet for the Coldplay / Snow Patrol indie-rock big leagues. However, through a combination of poor promotion and disappointing word-of-mouth, the projected success never materialised and the band eventually parted company with their record label of eight years.

I interviewed drummer Colin Newton and guitarist Allan Stewart a couple of years back in a hiatus between summer festival dates and recording. Perhaps it’s the fact that the band have always been rather obtuse with the press, or perhaps the monotony of having to endure endless chit-chats with tossers like me finally got the better of them, but the hope of eliciting a choice soundbite from either one seemed as remote a possibility as the band ripping into the entirety of Captain once more for old times’ sake. Having outlasted many of their peers through a process of dogged transition, it’s natural that a certain weariness may start to creep in - as Newton pointed out, as they approach the age of 30 they can’t be expected to still be performing songs they wrote when they were 18 with the same fire and spirit. However, there did seem to be a lack of enthusiasm for their chosen profession on display – their set that night seemed uncharacteristically subdued, and when I asked what they thought Idlewild’s best songs were, both musicians faltered before eventually asking me (for the record: I Don’t Have the Map, Safe and Sound, Actually It’s Darkness and Idea Track).

To that list we can now add this, the opening track from their fifth and most recent album Make Another World. Perhaps as a reaction against the negative experience of the last record, it had been widely suggested that the next stage in their evolution would be to revisit the more rambunctious rock of their early days; fittingly, while the album doesn’t scale the heady heights of the still-unmatched 100 Broken Windows, it’s a definite return to form for the band, one which crackles throughout with a re-energised sense of purpose.

At their finest (cf. the aforementioned I Don’t Have the Map), the band have always demonstrated a keen ear for construction: their process is mechanical, weaving musical and lyrical patterns around one another to create an impenetrable labyrinth of interlocking motifs. In Competition for the Worst Time is a fine example of this, with each musical element pushing and pulling with such crisply-defined precision that the end product ticks like clockwork. Woomble’s famously blank delivery has always sounded emotionless but not without character, and it’s brilliantly applied here when he sings, “I know my name, but I can’t deny / I talk in silence like I’m used to” - chances are that we’ll get to never know what he’s feeling, but he at least sounds like he means it again and that definitely goes a long way in helping to restore confidence in the band (on Warnings/Promises Woomble had sounded listless and even disengaged at some points).

There are several other gems scattered throughout the album: Everything (As It Moves) rattles like a metronome, whereas If It Takes You Home is a racing two-minute cherry-bomb in the grand tradition of Everyone Says You’re So Fragile and A Modern Way of Letting Go. But it’s this track which really makes its mark on the listener, offering an encouraging glimmer of hope for a band whose unique aesthetic had, until recently, seemed all but misplaced.

FILM: "Trois Couleurs: Rouge" (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1994)

I’m going to attempt to talk here about what has recently become insupplantable as my all-time favourite movie. Usually with personal canons – Top 10 Films in particular – I find that the chosen candidates remain fixed, shifting only slightly over a number of years to accommodate developments in maturity and taste. However, I’ve never known a film rocket into a list of favourites with such disarming alacrity. When I revisited Trois Couleurs: Rouge a few months back, it hit me with the full force of a megaton bomb. I found myself utterly overwhelmed by it, and have since re-watched it several times with no diminishment of effect. Most great films make an immediate impression on the first watch; this one crept up on me with no prior warning.

Valentine (a radiant Irène Jacob) is a young model studying in Geneva. Physically and emotionally, she repeatedly pushes herself as far as she can go: above all else, she simply wants to feel. However, she finds herself searching for something that seems forever out of reach; she cannot put her finger on the exact cause of her disquiet, but she is all too aware of its existence.

While driving home one night, she accidentally runs over a dog. Her desire to return the animal to its rightful owner leads her to the home of an embittered former Judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who supplements his empty existence by listening in on his neighbours’ phone conversations. Valentine is disgusted by him, but finds herself inexplicably drawn to his fatalistic view of the world and keen to discover the reasons behind his misanthropy. From their initially hostile first meeting, it gradually emerges that he can apparently foresee events in the lives of his subjects, as if somehow able to predict the future.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Valentine, across town a young law student seems to be living a life directly parallel to that of the Judge. He experiences the same heartbreaks and devastations that have shaped the elderly jurist’s life. As Valentine’s friendship with the Judge deepens, her antipathy fades and a mutual understanding begins to develop. Eventually she announces her plans to journey overseas to visit her possessive boyfriend, whose detached voice we have heard throughout the film whispering declarations of love she knows to be untrue. The scene is set for her departure, and she and the Judge bid each other farewell. However, there’s a storm brewing…

For such a critically-lauded film, the first thing that strikes you about Red is how remarkably low-key the whole affair seems. Rather than being an immediately distinguished venture set on drubbing the viewer with signs of its lofty artistic intent (cf. The Double Life of Véronique and Blue), Red at first comes across like one of the most unlikely masterpieces ever captured on celluloid. However, just as Kieslowski deftly weaves his magic throughout its duration, so too do its riches start to reveal themselves as the picture gradually takes shape before our disbelieving eyes. Every scene evokes an air of calculated mystery, as if somehow being propelled by forces beyond our control; the camera’s leisurely movement and loving preoccupation with the eponymous colour are premeditated to sustain a sense of déjà vu, as if we somehow know each place that is visited intimately despite never having been there before.

My favourite scene in the film occurs right near the end, when the Judge and Valentine part company for the last time. The Judge asks to see her ticket before she leaves; when she hands it to him, he impassively checks it over before handing it back with an impenetrable expression on his face. Their fingers meet for a fleeting moment against the glass of the car window before he drives away. Asked precisely why the Judge inspects her papers, a typically elusive Kieslowski refused to comment, but to me the implication is clear: this is the final piece of the puzzle, the last remaining detail in his grand design. He is, as he has been throughout, in complete control of events. His undetected presence in the lives of the young law student and his unfaithful lover has led to the disillusioned cuckold boarding the exact same ferry as Valentine. The Judge has waited his entire life to rectify the mistakes of his youth; now the opportunity to finally achieve this elusive sense of equilibrium has come full-circle. Jean-Louis Trintignant gives an exceptional performance as the Judge, alternately cold, aloof and seductive as he slyly goes about correcting what Kieslowski described as “a mistake in time”.

Some reviewers have criticised the film’s apparently anomalous ending, in which Valentine and the younger Judge are among the last known survivors of a sea disaster, rescued along with the leading characters from each of the trilogy’s previous two films. However, to me this seems the logical conclusion to Kieslowski’s entire canonical thesis: they are saved for their spiritual connection to one another by an unstoppable force of nature and a director’s compassion. Ultimately their plight is exactly the same as the film-maker’s own primary concern: his characters are saved by love.

I always describe this film as being what might happen if someone reached inside me and daubed the way I feel every single day all over the screen. With the event of his untimely death in 1994 I’ll never get the chance to tell Kieslowski how deeply his work has affected me, and for that I’ll always feel somehow incomplete. At the film’s core lies an attractively simple but eternally moving conceit: that Valentine’s longing is for someone she is yet to meet, and that her inherent feelings of unease are about to be placated by forces way beyond her comprehension (“I feel something important is happening around me”).

Red is the crowning achievement of this remarkable talent, a man whose cantankerous outer surface frequently belied his inner warmth and humanity. Every composition and line of dialogue is rich with meaning; imagery and sound are seamlessly interwoven with such exactitude (note the moment when the Judge’s static appears on Valentine’s car radio prior to her hitting his dog) that to even attempt to find fault in its overall design proves utterly fruitless. Logistically, every last detail is accounted for; Red is the perfect distillation and refinement of themes that Kieslowski had been developing throughout his entire career. It is more fully realised than the elliptical Véronique, in which the notion of his protagonists’ mistakes informing one another is evocatively rendered but frustratingly intangible. It is more serene than A Short Film About Love, more incisive than Blind Chance and bursting with compassion, as if we have finally retreated into the inner sanctity of Dekalog 3.

The director famously resisted giving his own interpretation of the work, though he did admit that Red was his most personal output. Given that I suspect he knew it was to be his last film (he announced his formal retirement from directing at that year’s Cannes film festival as Red received its world première), here Kieslowski laid it all on the table. This is the film in which he told us exactly how he felt without ever making it explicit. You can look for concrete meanings or sordid insights into the man, but you won’t ever find them. However, it’s all there, even if it exists as something that can never be fully explained.
Kieslowski’s communication is of the human heart and soul: the film is the poetic articulation of an existential condition that cannot be rationalised by such primitive tools as language or prose. Red is less of a film than an overall feeling - a work of hope, yearning, empathy and love. On a visual, intellectual, spiritual and philosophical level, it is the highest example of the cinematic artform imaginable to this writer. It is Kieslowski’s greatest gift to the world, and a part of me that can never be erased.

FILM: "Gerry" (Gus Van Sant, 2002)

As an auteur, Gus Van Sant often proves infuriatingly elusive, as humourlessly single-minded in his pursuit of aesthetic divinity as he is content to churn out the likes of Finding Forrester and then lampoon himself as a money-grubbing sell-out (see the hilarious Good Will Hunting parody in Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back). However, in recent years he seems to have made peace with his more stubborn artistic aspirations and found his true voice as a film-maker - a process that arguably began with this oddity. Gerry continues Van Sant’s preoccupation with the plight of young men in crisis, a theme which heavily informed his earlier films Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting. The set-up is simple but deliciously ambiguous: Matt Damon and Casey Affleck play two hikers who drive into the desert in search of an anonymous landmark, but quickly become lost and are forced to traverse the arid landscape for days without food or water in the vain hope of rediscovering their vehicle. Gerry is the name of both characters; it is also slang for a change in direction - a wrong turn. Given these circumstances, were they not doomed to disorientation even before they set out? Indeed, placed in a context of barren vacuity with no clear indication of where they came from or what they were hoping to achieve, were both men not already lost?

If your idea of a film revolves around such vagaries as plot, excitement and incident, you’re advised to stay well away. Despite ostensibly conforming to a linear narrative (the protagonists must find their way home), the closest Gerry comes to any kind of event is an entertaining scene in which Affleck is stranded on a large rock and Damon attempts to construct a makeshift dirt-pile to cushion his fall. For the most part though, nothing really happens and each shot seems to last an age, tracking alongside the characters with eerie fluidity as they continue their hopeless quest.

Gerry is an abstract road-movie of sorts, though at heart it is a conceptual piece which owes more to Samuel Beckett and real-time film-makers like Béla Tarr than the traditions of its immediate genre. It is perhaps best taken as a film about solitude; a quiet portrait of individuals alone with their thoughts. Worse perhaps for them than being stranded, the terrain represents a direct representation of their own condition: a literal and emotional blank. Van Sant’s expansive vistas offset his protagonists’ increasing sense of isolation and despair with quiet detachment, lingering on each landscape with a soporific indolence that displays as much reverence for the beauty of the scenery as it does despondence at its impenetrable vastness.

Against a backdrop of such overwhelming desolation, the characters become mere ciphers. One inordinately long shot shows the pair trudging side-by-side while the camera’s focus racks slowly between them; the only sound we hear for several minutes is the dull crunch of their footsteps against the gravel. Damon and Affleck’s low-key, largely emotionless performances are so minimal as to be ultimately complimentary, bringing an additional metaphysical dimension to the proceedings that begs the question: are they in fact the same person? Is the film’s climax (in which Damon smothers Affleck on a white salt-plain after he weakly whispers “I give in”, only to be rescued and find himself even more isolated on the road to home that he so desperately craved) an epiphanous rite-of-passage or simply the logical conclusion to their misadventure?

The stylistic template for many of Van Sant’s recent films, be they impressive (the wonderfully transient Elephant, for which this can be seen as a trial-run) or faintly irritating (Last Days, his rambling speculation on the final hours of Kurt Cobain), Gerry is a divisive but rewarding watch, less of a conventional piece of entertainment than an overall experience which relies more on the cumulative effect of composition, camera movement and pace than actual narrative thrust. It’s not entirely successful – it’s difficult to say whether there’s any real philosophical depth behind the deliberately open-ended conceit’s barren surface – but it’s certainly a haunting piece of work that lingers long in the memory after the final credits have rolled.

FILM: "Irréversible" (Gaspar Noé, 2002)

French movie brat Gaspar Noé’s controversial second feature is a blistering experiment in how far cinema can push an audience. With its ferocious extremes of style, performance and subject matter, Irréversible takes you right to the edge, bludgeoning the audience into submission through its ingenious structure and sheer force of delivery.

The film opens with an act of violence so appalling that the viewer is rendered immobile right from start. For much of the opening half-hour, Irréversible is almost unwatchable - the camera motion is so frenzied that we are granted only fleeting moments of clarity, creating a nauseating whirlwind of confusion as we attempt to get our bearings on both the immediate image and the events unfolding around us. Indeed, much of what we do see is alternately lurid or pornographic as it becomes apparent that we are following an agitated figure through the seedy underbelly of an S&M club. The soundtrack is not so much a musical score as it is an undulating, sickly throb designed to mesmerise and churn the senses in equal measure. In terms of raw visceral power, it is perhaps the most excessive and deliberately disorientating opening sequence in the history of mainstream cinema.

However, rather than simply being prurient enfant terrible posturing for shock value’s sake, it becomes progressively more apparent as the film wears on that Noé’s abrasive style is a fitting articulation of his protagonists’ turbulent state of mind. At this juncture, the emotions are so fraught that we have no choice but to be plunged headfirst into a nightmarish underworld of pimps, whores, hermaphrodites and bloodshed with absolutely no hope of reprieve. This is the point of no return – the final resting-place of all that is unstoppable or inevitable. Casually flipping received notions of temporality on its head, the film then plays backwards in segments which show the course of events leading up to this explosive conclusion. We learn that the horrific murder occurs as revenge for the rape of a young woman (Monica Bellucci), whose hot-tempered boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) and former-lover (Albert Dupontel) allowed her to leave a drug-fuelled party alone, unwittingly setting in motion a course of events that would lead to her attacker’s grisly demise at the hands of her previously mild-mannered ex. Before this, the trio were chatting casually on a subway train about their respective sexual prowess; prior to this, the couple was alone, a picture of contentment with no knowledge of the horror to follow. Sure enough, Noé’s stylistic frenzy dims as the day wears on, and we are gradually led back to a peaceful state of equilibrium.

Central to the film’s undeniable potency is the much-discussed rape scene that provides its dramatic crux. Dispelling any notions of titillation that can arise from casual cutaways, the episode is filmed in the most harrowing and uncompromising method imaginable: in real time, from a single static angle on the ground. Straw Dogs it isn’t; the resulting scene is one of the most gut-wrenching and uncomfortable experiences a viewer can imagine. Punctuated by Bellucci’s agonised screams, it seems to go on forever. Just like the act itself, the sequence is brutal and relentless - its single shot ultimately renders the viewer as helpless as Bellucci as she is mercilessly pinned to the floor; in the background, the outline of a passer-by tantalisingly shrinks away without intervening.

However, what’s perhaps most fascinating about Irréversible is the way the film plays with the conventions of narrative form. Unlike the mischievous trickery of Christopher Nolan’s similarly-structured Memento, Noé allows the viewer to establish the benefit of hindsight from the very beginning, so that at every turn we are made agonisingly aware of how the most incidental of decisions can influence the entire outcome of a situation. The cumulative effect is a shattering portrait of the inescapability of fate - by the time we arrive back at the serene starting-point for the day’s events, its dreamy imprudence seems almost like a happy ending. Of course, following temporal convention through the previous sequence of events, this is a respite of sorts: the last vestige of calm before the storm. As if to jolt viewers from this false sense of security, Noé’s closing shot of a contented Bellucci then begins to whirl violently, accelerating to such speed that it metamorphoses into a nasty strobing effect which eventually gives way to one final nihilistic proclamation: “Time destroys all things”.

For such a bold experiment in the form, it’s almost inevitable that Irréversible has its weaknesses: the inverse-development of each protagonist is perhaps not as fully realised as it might have been, with both Bellucci and Dupontel’s characters being particularly ill-defined as far as personality and motivation are concerned. Equally, the numerous ‘ironic’ forecasts scattered throughout the day have a tendency to seem less like ominous portents than glib afterthoughts on the part of the director. However, the responses of Bellucci and real-life partner Cassel to such fraught circumstances are remarkable, with the latter particularly impressive as his initially obnoxious personality gradually softens until we are finally able to see in him what she does during the couple’s tender love scene.

Jettisoning anything vaguely regarding subtlety in favour of an admirably-sustained sense of confrontation, Noé’s film is at once a primordial assault and a devastating cinematic experience. A true headfuck in every respect, Irréversible is not the kind of film most would choose to watch repeatedly but, as the title suggests, once seen it’s never forgotten.

Friday, July 20, 2007

FILM: "Heaven" (Tom Tykwer, 2002)

Following the international success of the Three Colours trilogy, Krzysztof Kieslowski announced his retirement from directing, citing emotional fatigue and a disillusionment with his chosen profession as the deciding factors. However, this self-imposed exile didn’t halt the industrious director’s love-affair with the medium, and it subsequently emerged that Kieslowski and co-writer Krzysztof Piesiewicz were working on a new trilogy of screenplays entitled Heaven, Hell and Purgatory at the time of his death in 1994.

Having maintained correspondence with the reclusive director following her work on The Double Life of Veronique and Red, actress Irène Jacob has suggested that rather than return to the fray, Kieslowski’s intention was to pass the projects on to three younger film-makers. Piesiewicz eventually expanded the existing 30-page outline into a feature-length script, and the project received international funding before being entrusted to Run Lola Run director Tom Tykwer. At first glance, Tykwer seems an unlikely candidate to bring the material to life – however, delving beneath the hyperactive surface of his previous work suggests that in fact he was the perfect choice. With a structure lifted almost entirely from Kieslowski’s earlier Blind Chance (in which three different scenarios arise from the protagonist’s attempts to catch a train), Run Lola Run’s pounding tempo and flashy, kinetic visuals were seemingly at odds with its thematic concerns, which are pure Kieslowski: Lola’s frantic plight to rescue her lover from harm takes place in a self-contained world governed alternately by fate, chance and its own mechanised logic in which the most ostensibly trivial decisions have life-altering consequences for everyone involved. More pertinently, at its still centre lay a belief in love’s ability to overcome even the most adverse of circumstances, an idea infused throughout Kieslowski’s conceptualisation of Heaven.

True to form, the film focuses on two people whose disparate lives are about to collide through apparently pre-ordained circumstances. Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi) is an idealistic dreamer whose spiritual aspirations are at odds with his austere position in the Consiglièrie. Filippo is the archetypal Kieslowski male, a continuation of the Judge in Red and the mail clerk from A Short Film About Love, characters whose sense of internal calm results in a contentment to just sit and watch a loved one from a distance. When we first meet Filippo he is piloting a helicopter in a simulated training exercise, gliding slowly over green hillsides in a computerised representation of scenes we will see repeated for real later in the film. “How high can I go?” he enquires after failing the test for attempting to exceed an acceptable altitude.

It is then that we are introduced to Philippa (Cate Blanchett), an English widow working as a teacher in Italy. Broken by her repeated pleas for the apprehension of a local drug kingpin (whose trafficking destroyed the lives of her husband and several of her pupils) falling on deaf ears, she decides to take justice into her own hands. Unfortunately, the home-made bomb she plants in his office is inadvertently removed by a cleaning-lady, who is killed along with a father and his two young children. Charged with belonging to a terrorist conspiracy, she is grilled by the unforgiving Consiglièrie, for whom an entranced Filippo acts as translator.

Sensing her underlying compassion, Filippo surrenders his own freedom to aid her escape. Cast in the visage of angels (their identical white T-shirts and shaven heads rendering them both sexless and not of this world), they journey across the Sicilian countryside to what will become their final place of rest in a symbolic finale in which Filippo pilots a stolen helicopter upwards into the sky.

In a telling exchange as they return to the place of her birth, Filippo is revealed to have arrived into the world at the exact moment of Philippa’s first communion, cementing the previously sketchy link between their unlikely kinship. She is liberated by him, both physically and emotionally; in turn, his life is given purpose and meaning when she embraces his love and allows it to redeem her. Both visually and spiritually they are intrinsically linked, often shown completing the other’s visage in compositions which equate them as two halves of the same whole. Indeed, when the couple eventually joins together as two distant figures amalgamating against a glowing sunset – a far cry from the crude sexual encounter between a milkman and his paramour that they uncomfortably witness earlier in the film - it becomes apparent that theirs is not some fleeting association, but a union of souls.

is a film of overwhelming beauty, an ethereal visual and emotional experience whose looming overhead swoops are instilled with a sense of tranquillity that perfectly mirrors the spiritual plight of its protagonists. Not a single frame is wasted; each moment bursts with luminous rapture, and when the characters finally achieve their freedom the countryside erupts into colour like springtime in full bloom. The film is elegantly scored and redolent with moments of inspired visual trickery, none more so than the stunning representation of Philippa and Filippo’s escape to the provinces, heralded by the breathtaking image of a train emerging from a tunnel towards a rapidly-expanding pinpoint of light. One of the finest films of this decade, Heaven is a fitting tribute to Kieslowski and a remarkable achievement for Tykwer, who manages to honour the spirit of the late director while bringing his vision to life with a tonal unity that clearly demonstrates Tykwer’s own burgeoning maturity as a film-maker.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

SONG: "Blue Sky/Black Death" - The Carter Manoeuvre (S/T demo, 2005)

I’m often asked by newcomers to The Carter Manoeuvre what my relationship is to them. In truth, I’m not a member of the band and I don’t contribute to any aspect of their creative process. That they are named after me is perhaps only half the story. You don’t need to know the intimate details behind the moniker; suffice to say that as time wears on its immediate meaning becomes less relevant and more an intrinsic part of the band’s own enigma. But there is a definite connection, something almost intangible that has persisted throughout their various incarnations over the past three years.

The Carter Manoeuvre are a Leamington-based act who are light-years ahead of the competition by virtue of being one of the only local bands to approach songwriting as a legitimate art-form. They have an organic, almost scientific approach to the process which has resulted in them becoming pioneers of their own genre, ‘brightwave’ - perhaps best described as a summery amalgamation of various leftfield influences: Broken Social Scene’s off-kilter melodic sensibilities, the dynamic, chunky rock of Biffy Clyro and Bloc Party’s experimental subversion of straight-ahead pop. More recently however they have been moving towards the more mellifluous and fully-integrated sound of latter-day Dismemberment Plan, whose masterful final album Change perfectly married the band’s penchant for warped, esoteric friction to their innate feel for melody. When it all comes together for The Carter Manoeuvre – as it has been doing with an impressive strike-rate at recent gigs - the cumulative effect is as blistering as Les Savy Fav, and more refreshing than a slap across the face with a palmful of sunshine.

TCM (or ‘Lecartmanoo’ as they are affectionately known) are one of those rare units where each piece of the puzzle has to lock into place to create the final picture. Frontman James Ellis has an impressive vocal range capable of yelping and wailing as easily as it’s able to scale a piercing falsetto. Ellis’s right-hand man and jack-of-all-trades Tom Grundy augments each song with an array of textural accompaniments from sinewy lead guitar to warm swathes of Hammond organ, while bassist James Turrell weaves a dense melodic foundation for the band to build upon, contributing the kind of towering, octave-traversing funk dynamic that makes his other band (the laid-back groove-rockers Blind Pilots) so delectably elastic. And drummer Stu Knight adds a cold, mathematical precision with his machine-gun delivery and perpetually unmoved stare: to watch him effortlessly fire out rhythm patterns that would make lesser musicians’ heads spin is at times akin to watching a pre-programmed machine. The overall package is topped off by various electronic breaks, triggered samples and three-part harmonies.

The band have any number of noteworthy tracks in their oeuvre, from Oliver’s plaintive melancholy through the concise sonic dart of Someone Who Can and Poison the Lonely’s thunderous polyrhythmic attack (I will refrain from including Endorphins - the band’s pleasantly basic early singalong which is clearly destined to become their Creep). However, it is Blue Sky/Black Death from their original demo which will always be the song that best captures everything I love about the band. A cryptic and elliptical tale of an ill-fated sky-dive, the track is pitched midway between Biffy Clyro’s two greatest achievements, Bodies in Flight and Now the Action is on Fire!, songs which take structural and thematic coherence as their starting-point and gradually build upwards. For the first couple of minutes, it’s nothing much to shout about. The track opens with a dull, waspish drone that soon gives way to a perfunctory stonewall of clattering funk-rock; the first movement hovers around listlessly until fading to an ominous syncopated breakdown. Then, midway through, it suddenly changes course to become something else entirely. It’s almost as if the panic of the initial revelation of a parachute’s failure gives way to a feeling of calm, accepting surrender - we begin watching powerlessly from the ground (“And no-one could survive that height, I’m sure of it”) before being transported directly into the body of the victim. When Grundy’s tumbling lead-guitar motif sneaks in almost unnoticed, it creates the effect of a monotonous lullaby descending note-by-note in chromatic succession while the rest of the band apply cascading torrents of sound that accurately evoke the sensation of plummeting towards the ground at a rapidly-increasing rate. Finally hitting the earth with a furious crash, the final chord feels like nothing short of a liberation; a merciful release that leaves the most indescribably transient afterglow.

The Carter Manoeuvre rarely play this song live anymore, partly from over-exposure and partly as I suspect they feel it unrepresentative of their current direction. However, for me this will always be the track which stands out in their catalogue, perhaps more for personal reasons than its rather clunky rendering on record. Like all the best songwriting, Blue Sky’s ultimate meaning is hermetic and self-contained, locked within the conjunction of the sounds, words and images rather than lurking anywhere on its immediate surface. To me though it always evokes memories of a time in my life where there was nothing but longing and alcohol, of stumbling from bar to bar watching one gig after another and feeling like nothing else in the world would ever matter. The climactic freefall is the perfect evocation of how it felt to be tumbling headlong into oblivion without any thought for my physical or emotional well-being, each chord striking right to the heart of the yearning I found myself feeling on an almost nightly basis. In a weird way it’ll always feel like my song and no-one else’s; the ultimate encapsulation of the inexplicable series of events that led to them taking my name as their own.

One day people will hail James Ellis as a genius, which I suspect I’ll find rather strange as to me he’ll always just be the schmuck on the couch who eats all our food and won’t ever leave. We can but hope though; it really would be a criminal waste if this band’s evident talents were to go unrecognised.

"The Switch Has Melted" E.P. - Eighth Day Descent (2006)

I bloody love Eighth Day Descent.

I say this for two reasons: one, because they’re an awesome live act and a great bunch of blokes. Two, because whether or not you consider yourself a metal fan or can’t stand the genre, there’s every chance you’ll love them too.

Despite their wilfully apocalyptic moniker, the band are heavy but surprisingly accessible. Their sound is an amalgamation of various influences, melding the abrasive full-on assault of Dillinger Escape Plan to the Deftones’ artful sense of texture and the darker edge of acts like The Acacia Strain and Between the Buried & Me. It’s not quite death metal, it’s not quite hardcore - in fact, it’s not even something you can particularly pin down within their approximate field.

Perversely for the genre, they’re also extraordinarily musical – and not in an irritating, sub-Dragonforce power-metal sort of way. Although admittedly coarse, the songs are powered by rhythm, dynamics and an ear for melody which cuts through the bluster and cliché usually associated with the growl-and-grind approach of most extreme bands. Consequently, tracks such as Desert of Winter and Timmy O’Toole never stay in one place for any great length of time, constantly switching modes and hopping across genres to create a mini-symphony of ideas and styles.

During one particularly drunken Saturday night a couple of years back, I witnessed the band’s second gig in a dingy basement. Back then, when frontman Larry took to the mic it was just a lot of nervous pacing interspersed with the occasional grunt. Nowadays, he barks with a full-throated vehemence which bristles with anger and sincerity. Both live and on record, you get the sense of a calculated precision at work - despite yielding everything from human pyramids to their bassist leaving the stage via whatever route happens to take his fancy, their live show never strays so far from visceral theatrics that the music isn’t allowed to dominate. It’s organised chaos.

This kind of music rarely fills stadiums, but then that was never the intention. EDD’s ethos is infused with an all-for-one, band-of-brothers mentality which could only have come from just getting out there and getting involved: loading up the van, travelling from town-to-town and helping to support and nurture the local scene. To this end, they have all the makings of a great underground band: passionate, intense and powered by a fervent belief in the purity of their own convictions. Like the two other great metal acts to emerge from the Warwick University band scene in recent years (Professor Plum and Pink Widow), they have to power to win hearts and fire souls simultaneously.

The switch has melted - open your ears, open your mind.