Thursday, 4 February 2016

St. Lucia - Matter

St Lucia - Matter

It was basically a crime that St. Lucia’s first album, ‘When The Night’, didn’t receive a worldwide release back in 2013. Its bright, sunny, tropical pop was perfect for the summer, but alas it wasn’t meant to be.

Now it’s finally available over here, and just in time for the release of its follow up, ‘Matter’ – an album that swaps the relaxed synth vibes for a boisterous, 80s sound. Synth stabs, heavy beats and glittery effects all feature heavily. It’s like the best bits of Chvrches, Passion Pit and M83 thrown together.

That certainly rings true on the album’s extended centrepiece, Rescue Me. It’s six and a half minutes of pulsing synth basslines and hypnotic rhythms that owes a great debt to the likes of Pet Shop Boys and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It’s more focused than much of the album, though it does border on pastiche.

The album is at its best when St. Lucia, a.k.a South African born Brooklyn-based Jean-Philip Grobler, throws everything to the wind, resulting in a bombastic display of kitchen sink dramatic production. Each track is thickly textured with layers of electronic effects, bold melodies and bursts of neon vibrancy. It’s impossible to resist. Lead single Dancing On Glass is like a more uplifting take on M83’s Midnight City, the frenetic Physical will have your feet moving and your head in a spin, The Winds Of Change gradually crescendos part by part towards a glorious chorus, and Help Me Run Away is part giddy dance track part migration anthem.

It’s a frantic, relentless and dizzying concoction that only slows on Love Somebody, a gentle electro-R&B track of yearning melodies (“I wanna love someone, I wanna love somebody”) and a smattering of tropical oriental flavours. It’s a rare moment of calm, but proves that much of Grobler’s music is underpinned by genuine emotion. Closing track Always pairs a lurching beat with the weight of a breakup, it’s chorus full of longing with its repeated “Baby I’ll remember you”.

‘Matter’ is the sort of album that blasts you full force into submission. Yet Grobler is clearly a master of hooks, pairing bombastic production with underlying sensitivity. He’s a pop force to be reckoned with.

4/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* Dancing On Glass
* Love Somebody
* Help Me Run Away

Listen: ‘Matter’ is out now.




The Big Short (2016) - Adam McKay

The Big Short (2016) - Adam McKay

I’ve never been one to have an affinity with maths. Numbers just don’t tend to make much sense in my head. And economics? Clueless. I, like the joyful people in this film’s multiple montages, spent the years leading up to the financial crisis of the 00s enjoying life and culture, blissfully unaware of the events to come.

The Big Short does its best to sex up what is, essentially, an incredible dry subject matter. It follows a group of zany, over the top characters embodying various Wall Street stereotypes as they (somehow, because numbers) predict the crash of the housing market that caused the economy to crash. Seeking to profit from this, they bet against the economy and make millions. Yet the main protagonists are (shock horror!) banking types with a heart, who agonise over the consequences of the crash for the population at large, whilst they benefit immensely.

It’s not the most exciting set up, but director Adam McKay delivers the story with stylish flair. There are fast-paced montages to spur the story on. There’s a funk score that gives the feel of a 70s con film. The fourth wall is smashed, drawing us into this corrupt world. There are pithy, brash and eccentric monologues, particularly from Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett who is something of a narrator. And there are hilariously played asides from the likes of Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez (as themselves) who attempt to debunk the economic jargon for us poor helpless viewers. It’s almost cartoon-like in its colourful boldness, matched by some exaggerated performances, and a dizzyingly restless camera that will have your head spinning almost as much as the maths.

Yet The Big Short sits somewhere awkwardly between comedy and education. For all the flashy cinematography striving to be the next Wolf Of Wall Street, this is ultimately a film about numbers. Some go up. Some go down. And you won’t always know why or how.

The film does try to humanise the impact of the economic crash, grounding events to a consumable level for us mere mortals without being too patronising. Steve Carell gives a surprisingly moving performance as Mark Baum who represents the moral ambiguity at play – a man making millions off the misfortunes of others. The film only hints at the full impact of the crisis, but perhaps it doesn’t need to show it, after all most of us who see the film are living through it right now. In that sense, the film is a call to arms that will shock and anger many viewers with its reveal of the truth.

Still, those numbers tick away in the background, on mobile screens, on computer screens. And by the end of the film, you’ll have a better sense of economics, but have you really been entertained? With little action besides a lot of frantic conversations, The Big Short is a hard film to invest in.

3/5

Watch: The Big Short is out now.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Room (2016) - Lenny Abrahamson

Room (2016) - Lenny Abrahamson

The less you know about Room before you watch, the more you’ll enjoy it. It’s a film that depends on its big reveal. But to not mention it wouldn’t make for a very interesting review – consider this your spoiler warning.

It’s the juxtaposition of the film’s two narrative halves that makes it such a success. We begin inside the titular room, almost voyeuristically spying on the lives of Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and his Ma (Brie Larson). Where Emma Donoghue’s novel – on which the film is based – tells its story purely from the juvenile, naïve perspective of Jack, here the film takes a broader approach. Extreme close ups and a lack of light create a sense of claustrophobia for both characters: for Jack this one room is the only world he’s ever known, for Ma it’s a torture full of unbearable frustration. Voiceovers from Jack suggest a confidence in his surroundings, but that soon changes. In what is one of the darkest and most desperate decisions in cinema (and literature), Ma persuades Jack to play dead so that their captor Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) will remove him, allowing an escape.

That escape is a real Wizard of Oz moment. Jack looks out at the world, overwhelmed. Wide angled shots give a sudden sense of space and colour and he turns immediately from bratty kid to almost mute. You’ll find yourself willing him to divulge information to the police as tension grows in the build up to Ma’s rescue. The sense of relief is palpable.

And that is essentially it. It’s both a blessing and a curse that the film’s climax comes about a third of the way in. Not much else happens and you find yourself questioning “what now?”.

That, though, is the whole point. What now? Room isn’t a film about kidnapping; indeed besides a brief explanation we never find out too much about Ma’s capture or Old Nick’s reasoning. Instead, this is a film about overcoming trauma, looking to the future and not dwelling on the past. After experiencing such a horrific event, having your life back is a gift – but what would you do with it?

That’s why Room is such a life-affirming film. Sometimes we need to take a step back and view things with clarity through the simplified, innocent lens of a child – and that’s exactly what director Lenny Abrahamson gives us. Through low angles we see the world as Jack does, where tiny moments have huge impact. As with the delicate score from Stephen Rennicks, the film offers minimal storytelling with maximum effect: the room could be a metaphor for any sort of grief or trauma and with the film being so vast and spacious, it’s up to us to fill in the blanks with our own meaning. Room, then, becomes an extremely personal film.

It also focuses down on the central performances. Sure, Tremblay is adorable as Jack, but it’s Larson who gives a truly remarkable performance. Ma is such a complex character, a volatile mix of frustration, sadness, depression, strength, and love for her son. Where Jack proves resilient to his surroundings, Ma agonises over her ability as a mother. Larson’s emotionally charged performance expertly guides us through the film – without it, Room wouldn’t be such a cathartic release.

5/5

Watch: Room is out now.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Sia - This Is Acting

Sia - This Is Acting

Pipe down Sia. You had your moment.

In fact, she’s had several moments, albeit largely writing for others. Last year’s ‘1000 Forms Of Fear’ marked the moment that Sia finally became a fully-fledged popstar in her own right, bringing her huge success with the cataclysmic Chandelier. Stretching that into another album, though, is a step too far.

Of course, songwriting is tough business. For every hit, there are hundreds of rejected songs cast aside. For many, that’s where they should stay. But when ‘This Is Acting’ consists of songs rejected by other artists, you have to ask: why? Why were they rejected? And why release them?

The simplest pleasure from ‘This Is Acting’ is playing ‘guess the popstar’. It’s well documented that Alive, for instance, was written with Adele in mind (she even has a writing credit) and her voice certainly could’ve leant some needed weight to the belted chorus. Elsewhere the Latino dance rhythms of Move Your Body were probably written for Shakira; the laidback feel of Reaper and the reggae beats of Cheap Thrills are clearly aimed at Rihanna; and only Beyoncé could pull off power ballad Footprints. Listening through is a bit like a musical puzzle.

It also provides some insight into the workings of Sia as a songwriter. Dealing strictly with pop structures, it’s easy to pick out key Sia tropes: from the soaring melodies, to the repeated lyrical earworms, the chorus reprise with reduced production, and the general sense of melodrama. Sia’s not known for her subtlety and ‘This Is Acting’ is as relentless as you’d expect. The problem is that her formula gets tired quickly. Nestled amongst other songs, a Sia banger can do wonders for a popstar, but a whole album’s worth becomes overly repetitive. This is common denominator manufactured pop that spans an awkward line between Sia’s distinct characteristics and the personalities of other artists. The title really is apt. And where Sia keeps bringing the same sorts of songs, it's understandable that popstars would want something fresh and novel instead.

The other major issue is Sia’s grating vocal. “I’ll shout it out like a bird set free”, she squawks on the opening track and that continues throughout the album. Alternating between mumbling and shouting, her voice cracks painfully on the higher notes of Alive (this is probably for purposeful, ironic effect on the lines “I’m still breathing”), it has a weird vibrato thing on One Million Bullets, and on the whole is as likeable as marmite.

With Sweet Design, she finally breaks the mould with a choppy hip-hop track that references Sisqo’s Thong Song. It’s out of character for her, but finally brings something a little different, proving what Sia can achieve when she steps out of her box. Yet that happens too infrequently, leaving us with an album that confirms you can have too much of a good thing. Sia’s moment has passed, so let’s leave her swinging from the chandelier where she belongs.

2/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* Alive
* Move Your Body
* Sweet Design

Listen: ‘This Is Acting’ is out now.


Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Danish Girl (2016) - Tom Hooper

The Danish Girl (2016) - Tom Hooper

The Danish Girl is pure, unadulterated Oscar bait.

Oscar winning director? Check. Oscar winning actor? Check. Oscar winning composer? Check. Oscar nominated cinematographer? Check. Topical subject? Check.

It's certainly a beautiful looking film. Each shot is framed to perfection and artfully, delicately edited. But then you'd expect nothing less for a film about the relationship between two artists. And Copenhagen isn't difficult to make look pretty, even if it was actually filmed in a number of European cities.

It's all too perfect though. Everything is positioned with mathematical precision - every camera angle, every smile, every hand movement. As a film about living as transgender, The Danish Girl is polite and tasteful, but fails to truly get under the skin of its protagonist.

That would be Eddie Redmayne in typically transformative fashion as Einar Wegener, a popular artist who becomes the first recipient of gender reassignment surgery in 1920s Denmark to become Lili Elbe. There's a real tenderness between him and his artist wife Gerda, with sketches becoming a sort of erotic display between the two.

The actual transformation, though, just feels forced. Einar's desire to become a woman seems to stem from a fixation on dresses; frequent close-ups serve to over-emphasise the difference in the characters' gender; phallic vegetables are chopped; and there's lots of reflective moments in mirrors. Witnessing Redmayne literally tucking himself is a blatant step too far.

Equally, the camera shies away from showing too much emotion, too much rawness. There are moments of brutality - violence, an attempted cure, dangerous surgery - but for a long film, the narrative brushes over these moments too swiftly. Just as Einar's masculinity is muted, the inherent trauma of the situation is softened. Redmayne's twitching mouth does as much acting as the rest of him, but it's undeniably a sensitive performance despite some ineffective material.

Alicia Vikander offers the more nuanced performance as Gerda - a woman torn between love for her husband and love for her art. With Lili, the two intertwine as Gerda dresses up her husband as her new muse. Is Lili just an art project gone too far? Is she capitalising on his situation? Is it her fault? Vikander encapsulates both Gerda's strengths and weaknesses - for all Redmayne's rouge-lipped beauty, it's impossible to take your eyes of Vikander.

The presentation is so gentle and safe it doesn't do this empowering story justice. Commendably, the film attempts to explore the mindset, rather than the genitalia, of a transgender woman. It just doesn't dig deep enough.

3/5

Watch: The Danish Girl is out now.

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Rihanna - Anti

Rihanna - Anti

Good news: if you’re a fan of just-released lazy mid-tempo jam Work then you’ll enjoy what ‘Anti’ has to offer.

Bad news: ‘Anti’ is a collection of lazy mid-tempo jams like Work.

Really, Rihanna has shot herself in the foot. With a dire and lengthy album campaign, hype has been built to catastrophic levels. And considering she’s always been more of a singles artist than an album artist, many expected ‘Anti’ to be a collection of chart destroying bangers. It’s not. Those days are over. Gone. And that’s undoubtedly a disappointment.

Get over what ‘Anti’ isn’t, though, and we can move on to appreciate what it is: the best Rihanna album since ‘Rated R’. That is, in terms of its consistency of style and tone – it certainly doesn’t have the exceptional singles we’ve come to expect from her oeuvre, but it feels more complete by comparison to, say, ‘Loud’ and ‘Talk That Talk’ that are basically singles hastily thrown together masquerading as an album. ‘Rated R’ remains her most conceptual album, an aggressive middle finger to Chris Brown full of hard-edged hip-hop vibes and a wildly angry tone.

‘Anti’ is…well it’s difficult to tell what it’s all about. In many ways it’s not what you’d expect from a Rihanna album, which perhaps explains the title. With no obvious singles, it’s an album of experimental mid-tempo jams, warmly textured atmosphere, and a more subtle sense of sexuality. It’s an off-kilter approach that takes Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 album as a template in an effort to redefine her career as a serious artist. It’s just not all that successful.

As the album’s first single, Work is exemplary of its musical style. It’s an edgy, underground fusing of R&B, reggae and hip-hop that informs the sensibility of the album at large. Opener Consideration has an almost brittle beat with additional vocals from SZA, which leads into the Stevie Wonder-esque neo-soul of interlude James Joint that really deserves to be fleshed out (“we’re too busy kissing…here come the police”). Finally with Kiss It Better ‘Anti’ gets going, with its whirring synths and electric guitars lurching us into futuristic territory; later there’s the hypnotic mood of Desperado and the minimalist clicks and melismatic hooks of Needed Me that continue the general sense of sombreness meets intoxicating sensuality.

That also continues with Rihanna’s vocal. Frequently, she relies on an almost cooing whisper, curls of weed smoke seductively caressing her lips as she lilts in soft Patois. Outbursts of higher notes reveal a crackling rasp – Rihanna’s hardly known for a technically strong voice, but on much of ‘Anti’ she’s discovered a new, understated character.

Halfway through the album we have Woo. Even though it’s produced and co-written by The Weeknd amongst others, it’s a jarring, abrasive track with production that overwhelms Rihanna’s newfound subtlety. It’s 100% skippable. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Same Ol’ Mistakes that, in typical Rihanna fashion, samples Tame Impala’s New Person, Same Old Mistakes. It sums up the dreamy approach of ‘Anti’ and is one of the album’s best songs, largely because it’s basically a Tame Impala song with seemingly little input from Rihanna herself.

From here, much like the long-winded an ultimately disappointing album campaign, ‘Anti’ takes a turn for the wispy with a series of half-baked empty ballads. Close To You at least ends things with a touching moment of genuine intimacy, but for the most part ‘Anti’ just doesn’t have the depth, the nagging hooks, nor the aggressive punch of her best work. In trying to find a more intelligent, musical and subtle sound, she’s ultimately ended up with something that lacks impact and doesn’t warrant its endless gestation. Instead it’s a musical accompaniment to laidback, mellow, quietly enchanting smoking sessions – and it appears to have gone to her head.

And there remain unanswered questions. Why did it take so long? Was she forced to just release whatever she had by this point? Though the album apparently leaked when first put on Tidal, why was it then released for free? Perhaps due to Tidal’s lack of consumer base? And most importantly, what happened to the previous three songs originally thought to be part of ‘Anti’? Above all of this, American Oxygen remains the best song she’s released in recent memory.

So, ‘Anti’ isn’t quite the smart, slick album she’s spent so long slaving over. But it definitely marks a new, introverted era for the singer, one that will likely lose as many followers as she may gain.

3/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* Kiss It Better
* Work
* Needed Me

Listen: ‘Anti’ is available now (on Tidal).

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Rihanna - Work

Rihanna - Work

Has Rih been smoking too much pot?

Either way, her singing voice isn’t doing much work on this new single, the latest to be taken from her highly anticipated new album ‘Anti’. What begins as slurring soon just devolves into gibberish, “work work work work work” becoming “wor wer waa wahhhhh wa”. Repeated listening is genuinely hilarious.

Trying to decipher exactly what the song is about, then, is a futile effort. But if Max Martin has taught us anything, it’s that great pop music doesn’t have to have great lyrics – often a melodic hook is enough. And after only one listen, that nagging “wor wer waa wahhhhh wa” hook is thoroughly cemented in the mind. And that beat! This isn’t great pop by any stretch, but with its infectious rhythms, dance-pop vibes and token Drake verse, it’s easy to imagine us all slut-dropping away for the foreseeable future. The lazy vocal delivery almost doesn’t matter.

The problem is that after so much Anti…cipation, Work was never going to live up to everyone’s expectations. Perhaps she’s trolling us and the next single will be the smash we all want and deserve. Or perhaps Work will make more sense in the context of the rest of the album – we’ve only got days to find out.

So no, this Rih-Drake collaboration is no Take Care or What's My Name. And it's nowhere near Kelly Rowland's Work. It isn’t a banger, but it’s definitely a bop. That’ll do for now.

3/5

Listen: Work is available to stream on Tidal (LOLZ) or you can download on iTunes. 

Monday, 25 January 2016

Chairlift - Moth


After Chairlift’s previous album ‘Something’ with its heavy 80s synth-pop influences – the spiky Sidewalk Safari and dreamy I Belong In Your Arms especially – it’s surprising that the most striking track on new album ‘Moth’ is a ballad. And a really beautiful, delicate one at that. “Sorry I’m crying in public” sings Caroline Polachek in an apologetic, wispy falsetto, “I’m falling for you”. It’s a song about the helplessness of love and feeling, where falling for someone causes a “scene on the train”. These aren’t tears of joy, and it’s all underpinned by gently shuffling percussion and softly slapped bass in Patrick Wimberly's production. For anyone who’s ever had an emotional train journey, this is for you.

Elsewhere, ‘Moth’ delivers wonderfully off-kilter pop. The staccato beats of Romeo build towards a dreamily irresistible chorus as Polachek, inspired by Greek mythology, mellifluously sings of a lover, whilst Ch-Ching pairs brass stabs with R&B rhythms that’s exemplary of Chairlift’s willingness to experiment with genres. That extends to the jazz influence of Polymorphing, the oriental colours of Ottawa to Osaka, and the pure dance-pop banger brilliance of Moth to the Flame on which she laments the inescapable pull of a lover ("he's that kind of man mama"). Having worked with Beyoncé on her last album, it seems that her pop influence has rubbed off on the duo just as much as their quirky charm aided her return.

All this fluttering between genres, though, makes Chairlift quite difficult to pin down. Operating in a middle ground between pop and alternative, they more often than not hit the jackpot. But there are misses here: No Such Thing as Illusion, at six and a half minutes long, is about six and a half minutes too long, and for much of the album you wish the hooks were just a little bit stronger and a little further removed from their previous work.

Yet ‘Moth’ still shimmers with slick polish, the sound of an underground act flying closer to the light of stardom, Polachek’s soft vocals singing catchy hooks that hover over Wimberly's beguiling production. And for all their idiosyncratic peculiarities, they sure know how to deliver a tearjerking ballad – bring some tissues.

4/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* Romeo
* Crying in Public
* Moth to the Flame

Listen: ‘Moth’ is available now.



Thursday, 21 January 2016

The Picture of Dorian Gray @ Trafalgar Studios


Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray is one of those timeless pieces of literature that remains incredibly relevant: not least for its homoeroticism and hedonism in gay culture, but also its themes of moral duplicity, public image, and the adoration of youth. Yet with so many adaptations of the story (theatrical and cinematic), it’s difficult to bring something novel and original.

This particular production is adapted by Merlin Holland, Wilde’s only grandson, in which he has restored many of the revisions that Wilde’s original text was subject to under censorship. As a result, Holland has attempted to stay true to Wilde’s original vision. Yet what’s so intriguing about the published version is its homoerotic subtlety, the novel taking on a life of its own as the writer hides his feelings behind his words. Here, though, that subtlety is lost, becoming a far more overtly homosexual narrative.

The first scene feels particularly seedy, with the elder Lord Henry Wotton (John Gorick) and Basil Hallward (Ruper Mason) blatantly fawning over the young Dorian (Guy Warren-Thomas). It’s as if the men openly show their sexual interest rather than a quiet, intriguing fascination. The actors certainly revel in Wilde’s language and philosophy, but the performances lack restraint.

By the time the second act comes around, the pace has quickened considerably, with shorter scenes, actors jumping between roles with little introduction or development, and awkward scene changes. This, in addition to a plain set and amateurish staging, make for a far from handsome picture: it’s clumsy, lacks depth, and the additions are underwhelming. The only personality comes from the comical portrayal of the various peripheral characters. Some of this is purposeful if unnecessary, such as male actors in drag to cover female roles with the finesse of a pantomime dame. At other times it’s unintentional: the darker, mystical elements of the plot are undermined by amusing costumes, spooky music and clichéd voiceover.

The only actor not to change character is Warren-Thomas as Dorian. His angular features are certainly striking but he plays the role with a calm gentility that’s all too polite. Like the production as a whole, it’s overly safe and lacks a distinctive edge – unlike Wilde himself, the cast and crew are too fearful to take a risk.

2/5

Watch: The Picture of Dorian Gray runs at the Trafalgar Studios until 13th February.

The Picture of Dorian Gray @ Trafalgar Studios

The Picture of Dorian Gray @ Trafalgar Studios
Photos: Emily Hyland

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

The Rolling Stone @ The Orange Tree Theatre


In Chris Urch’s ambitious second play, he dives headfirst into the crisis of homosexuality in Uganda. Its title, The Rolling Stone, relates to a newspaper circulating in the capital city of Kampala in 2010 in which suspected homosexuals had their faces printed. During this time, homosexuality was still a crime, with gay people facing the death penalty – that is, if they weren’t murdered by fellow members of the community. Western countries may still be striving for equality, but this urgent piece of writing shows how far the rest of the world still has to go.

At the centre of the story is the growing romance between Ugandan native Dembe (Fiston Barek) and Irish-Ugandan immigrant Sam (Julian Moore-Cook). It’s a touching and believable relationship, balancing the frank intimacy of intercourse with an overbearing sense of fear, the two men forever watching their backs. And where so much gay theatre settles into tired ‘coming out’ stories, The Rolling Stone puts a twist on things. Here, Dembe isn’t struggling to come to terms with his sexuality; instead he’s confident in his feelings, but simply unable to express them due to the oppressive society he lives in.

What’s most refreshing though is that the real focus of the play is the impact of Dembe’s sexuality on his family. You see, not only did gay people face the death penalty, but their family could also face imprisonment. And with Dembe’s family devoted to evangelical Christianity, it’s a toxic environment – though crucially it’s fanaticism, not faith, that’s the enemy.

The Rolling Stone, then, is a moving and powerful family drama that sensitively handles a deeply troubling subject. Urch’s script is full of credible dialogue – remarkable when he’s yet to visit the country himself – and the simple staging highlights the intimate moments and the confident performances that play out with such conviction. As the mute Naome, Faith Alabi does more with one single scream than others can do with a whole monologue, whilst Sule Rimi’s Joe delivers a frankly terrifying anti-homosexual sermon. Faith Omole’s Wummie, though, is perhaps the most interesting character of all: torn between love for her brother and duty to God, she (like the audience) is complicit in Dembe’s relationship, but tragically helpless to assist.

4/5

Watch: The Rolling Stone runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 20th February.

The Rolling Stone @ The Orange Tree Theatre

The Rolling Stone @ The Orange Tree Theatre
Photos: Manuel Harlan