Sunday, 18 February 2018

Black Panther - Ryan Coogler

Black Panther - Ryan Coogler

Black Panther may not be the first film based on a black comic book character, but boy has he come at the right time.

This is Marvel at their most political. It's a film about the integration of the black community and wider society; about black supremacy versus diplomacy and equality; about the power of Africa and its influence over the diaspora. In times of crisis we should build alliances not walls - a direct criticism of current American politics.

It's probably one of the most important cinematic releases in recent history, not for lecturing about black history, but for being a piece of popular culture that celebrates black culture - in particular African culture - so positively.

Black Panther is from the fictional land of Wakanda, an Afro-futurist world in central Africa hidden from view. It's built on the crash site of an asteroid that provides Wakanda with vibranium, a mysterious alien metal used to build advanced technology. It's this metal that powers the suit of the Black Panther, a warrior who ingests a special herb that provides him with superhuman abilities. But should this technology be shared with the world, or remain hidden to protect Wakanda? The return of an African-American to claim the position of Black Panther threatens to unbalance society as a whole.

Wakanda is stunningly depicted - in the midst of the African rainforest and the sun-soaked sahara is a metropolis of futuristic architecture and technology, inhabited by five different tribes in costumes inspired by traditional African dress. They fight with high-powered spears and ride armoured rhinos, the world filled with tribal colour, dances and animal symbolism. It's like nothing else in cinema.

The score, from Ludwig Göransson, similarly blends African instruments, rhythms and chanting with lush orchestration and hip-hop beats, which continues in Kendrick Lamar's soundtrack that riffs on the film's themes with contemporary flair. And then there's the cast, literally a who's who of black Hollywood including Lupita Nyong'o, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Daniel Kaluuya.

As far as representation goes, Black Panther is politically charged and highly poignant. But here's the rub: strip all that away and you're still left with one of the coolest superhero films ever. It's a Marvel film so of course there are plot holes, but on the whole the story is satisfying with some incredible action sequences - the car chase across Korea is a thrilling highlight. It also strikes a balance between sincerity and comedy, particularly with its characters. The female cast especially balance fierce power with likeable sass: Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong'o and Danai Gurira absolutely steal the film.

Perhaps the only disappointment is Black Panther himself (Chadwick Boseman), a stoic leader who is ultimately upstaged by the supporting cast. But the authentic, believable world of Wakanda is the real focus, as inherently black as it is a colourful wonder. Polished, fun, and strikingly relevant: Black Panther is Marvel's best film yet.

4/5

Watch: Black Panther is out now.


Thursday, 15 February 2018

A Triptych of Comic Operas - The Kings Head Theatre


A Triptych of Comic Operas - The Kings Head Theatre

Who said opera had to be stuffy, dense and obtuse?

For this night at The Kings Head, Irrational Theatre presented not one but three miniature one act operas full of frivolity, each as absurd as the last. Opera is often comic, but rarely does it laugh at itself.

But that’s what Peter Reynolds did with his 1993 opera The Sands of Time. At just three and a half minutes long, the Guinness Book of Records claimed it was the shortest opera on earth – the same time it takes to boil an egg. It pokes fun at the form of opera combining all its elements into a single through-sung scene, but it’s full of its own silliness too: a couple having an argument over breakfast in a nod to its egg-themed length. It’s frothy and fun, though unlikely to ever be more than a curio.

It’s the second of the three, the first being John Whittaker’s The Proposal. An adaptation of a short play by Anton Chekhov, it’s another silly look at a relationship – this time a proposal that repeatedly goes awry. It is the most polished production of the three, but also the most musically disinteresting. Instead its carried by its farcical plot, the cast making the most of the limited scope for characterisation in this miniature.

It’s the same three singers used for all three operas, but they clearly have the most fun with the final performance: Offenbach’s Le 66. A truly bizarre tale of brother and sister travelling musicians who believe they’ve won the lottery, it finally gives the singers a chance to stretch their vocal and dramatic muscles. Compared with the other two, Offenbach’s piece is wonderfully melodic and although the staging was under-rehearsed, its absurdity had the audience and cast giggling alike. It was also the first time Le 66 was performed in English in the UK, with a new libretto from Matthew Toogood and Ellen Leather that juxtaposed modern dialogue with lederhosen and allowed for some comedy German accents from the cast.

It may not have been the most refined or sophisticated evening of opera, but its whimsy was infectious. Sometimes fun comes in small packages.

3/5

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Rae Morris - Someone Out There

Rae Morris - Someone Out There

We've all imagined that moment: full of heartbreak, you step outside into the night, rain pouring down your cheeks and melting into your tears. You imagine you're in a film as you soak to the bone, shivering from cold and outpouring emotion, before walking away cleansed.

Rae Morris has encapsulated that in a song. "I chose to call it time," she begins on Wait For The Rain as the storm rumbles, "I need to wash away the hours I cried last night". And then she steps out into the chorus - "I cannot wait for the rain to make a woman of me again" - as the music swells and soars. It's a stunning release of emotion.

'Someone Out There' marks a turning point for Rae Morris, from quiet singer-songwriter to alt-pop star. It's no wonder she returned singing of being reborn: written and produced by Fryars, this second album is full of invention and experimentation.

The theme of rebirth runs through much of 'Someone Out There'. After being pushed to her limit on the opening track, she spends the rest of the album moving on. On Atletico (The Only One) she leaves her light on for a potential lover, synths fizzing with anticipation. Do It is a rush of excitement, the repeated lyrics urgently yet playfully driving forward towards a rousing key change. And Dip My Toe flutters with nervous sexual tension: "We'd better hope our bodies rhyme," she notes before warning "if the sparks don't fly, you can wave bye-bye."

The rest of the album sees her further experimenting with this new fizzing pop sound. Rose Garden juxtaposes throbbing bass and neon synths with a delicate piano refrain; Dancing With Character is a cute and intimate album closer that nevertheless throws the production widescreen. Ballads like the title track are a little too saccharine, but it's clear that Rae Morris has found her voice and re-established herself with a fun pop album full of warmth and creativity - even in the rain.

4/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* Atletico (The Only One)
* Do It
* Wait For The Rain

Listen: 'Someone Out There' is out now.



Saturday, 10 February 2018

New Music Friday 09/02

James Bay - Wild Love

James Bay - Wild Love

Pop's most boring artist since Sam Smith returns. Except he's missing his hat and has developed his sound into something far, far more interesting. It's clear he's been busy listening to the likes of Frank Ocean, James Blake and Francis and the Lights: his vocal is muted over evocative little synth buds that eventually blossom into a glorious final chorus. The guitar solo isn't up to much, but this change of direction is as enjoyable as it is surprising.



Marshmello & Anne-Marie - Friends

Marshmello & Anne-Marie - Friends

The sugary-headed producer returns with another pop vocalist featuring single. Friends sees Anne-Marie putting a potential lover firmly in the friend zone over squelching basslines, with lyrics full of sassy putdowns. It's got far more personality than Marshmello's previous collaboration with Selena Gomez, which should continue Anne-Marie's rising pop profile.



Noah Cyrus feat. MØ - We Are...

Noah Cyrus feat. MØ - We Are...

Miley's younger sister continues her bid at pop stardom, hear joining forces with MØ for a brash, youthful new single straight out of Lorde's sonic world. Sparse production and half-shouted vocals feature, but it's no Royals.



Nadine Coyle - Girls On Fire

Nadine Coyle - Girls On Fire

Coyle comes blasting right out of the gate on this one, with a storming vocal over belching, booming bass and funky, vibrant synths. There's no let-up throughout: a stomping single that relentlessly screams for our attention.



Calvin Harris feat. PARTYNEXTDOOR - Nuh Ready Nuh Ready

 Calvin Harris feat. PARTYNEXTDOOR - Nuh Ready Nuh Ready

Following his funk-laden album from last year, Calvin Harris returns to dance music with this new single. Except dance music has changed since his early singles. Featuring PARTYNEXTDOOR who he worked with on 'Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1', this is more dancehall than dancefloor - an improvement on his funk foray but still out of his comfort zone.



Saara Aalto - Monsters

Saara Aalto - Monsters

Twice before Saara Aalto has competed to represent Finland at Eurovision. Now, after appearing on the UK's X Factor in 2016, she's signed to Warner Music and will soon release her debut album. Monsters will feature not only there, but as the first of three potential songs to represent Finland at this year's Eurovision. It's a pretty standard floor filler, but her cross-country appeal and powerful vocals could steal a win...



Linney - Outta My Heart

Linney - Outta My Heart

On her new single, L.A.'s Linney here gives an account of heartbreak in an 80s influenced, polished Scandi-pop package. "Feels like the right mistake," she begins, before questioning "what if maybe I'm crazy leaving you?". Hushed vocals and a soft blur of synths make this an alluring listen.



Au/Ra - Panic Room

Au/Ra - Panic Room

Au/Ra has slowly released a string of dark pop singles, but Panic Room is the darkest of all: a moody song about anxiety, panic and fear. It's ominous, gothic alt-pop at its finest.



All Or Nothing: The Mod Musical @ The Arts Theatre

All Or Nothing: The Mod Musical

Jukebox musicals are ten a penny these days, with the music of the 50s and 60s being particularly fruitful as a source of nostalgia-fuelled inspiration. All Or Nothing is simply the next in line.

Based on the music and history of The Small Faces, it's a colourful depiction of the Mod culture of the 60s following the rise and fall of a band in the midst of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It's told through the view of frontman Steve Marriott who reminisces on his past from the afterlife, framing the whole show as a grand nostalgia piece.

Writer Carol Harrison worked with Marriott's mother Kay and daughter Mollie (the show's vocal coach) to bring authenticity to the production. Yet crucially, this feels like the glossy memory of a distant past. It's a whimsical evening of live band performances, bright faithful costumes, comedy cameos and lad banter: loud, brash and frothy. In this context, its criticism of the music industry and manufactured pop is flimsy.

Harrison seems keen to paint Marriott as a tragic anti-hero. Chris Simmons stumbles on to the stage to deliver his narration as the older Marriott with Cockney swagger, pint in one hand and cigarette permanently in the other. Yet he's far from a likeable character, only emphasised by Samuel Pope's depiction of the younger Marriott as an arrogant, cantankerous youth. His only redeeming feature is his charisma as a frontman, something Pope captures wonderfully with authentic jerky movements and vocals. The show lacks the raw edge that Harrison is eager to convey and when the plot lunges into the band's tragic end it stumbles into un-earned sentimentality.

And while The Small Faces were synonymous with Mod culture, their legacy lacks far behind the likes of The Beatles or The Who from the same period. "Itchycoo Park" and "Lazy Sunday" have that 'oh it's this one' quality, but the remaining songs - though performed well by the core cast - are memorable only to fans.

Which brings us back to nostalgia. For the target audience - fans of the band, like Harrison herself - All Or Nothing offers a fun opportunity to reminisce. But its popular appeal is limited to curio status, a musical that fails to entertain a wider audience.

2/5

Watch: All Or Nothing runs at the Arts Theatre until 11th March.

All Or Nothing: The Mod Musical
Photo: Phil Weedon



Thursday, 8 February 2018

Justin Timberlake - Man Of The Woods

Justin Timberlake - Man Of The Woods

We all know Justin Timberlake can write a good pop song. He proved that with his earlier albums. He proved it again in 2016 with the ubiquitous Can’t Stop The Feeling – a family friendly, cuddly toy of a song.

But Justin Timberlake wants to be taken seriously. He’s above pop music now. He’s a man of the woods. He’s into authenticity (whatever that is), acoustic instruments, beards and terrible, terrible suits. This all manifests in his newest album in which he attempts to splice together the disparate music worlds of modern R&B and country. It’s not a happy union.

Aside from the awkward implications of appropriating music from opposing ends of the racial spectrum (or perhaps it’s admirable that he’s trying?), in practice this musical fusion mainly consists of adding some twangy guitars to 808 beats. The title track, for instance, is a teeth-grindingly twee little ditty, or there’s Wave that clumsily pairs a jaunty country song with a smooth half-time beat. And on the saccharine Flannel, a campfire sing-along and semi-spoken verse are underpinned by a light electronic beat – it is Americana at its dampest.

It’s the lyrics that grate most of all, though. If Timberlake wishes to be taken seriously, perhaps he needs to stop questioning “what you gonna do with all that meat?”, claiming “I love your pink, you like my purple” or that he’s a “jealous lover”, or goading women with lines like “come on, don’t be passive”. ‘Man Of The Woods’ is leaden with limp sexual metaphors, Timberlake’s idea of romance being “a spa day and bonfires”. It is vapid stuff.

On the flip side are songs that lean more heavily on the modern R&B influences. After the album’s bizarre teaser trailer, Timberlake’s proper return was with lead single Filthy that’s decidedly futuristic: a dirty beat, Prince-esque funk, and a video in which he dances with a robot. He’s certainly not Livin’ Off The Land here. Supplies, however, is so try-hard hip-hop that its pastiche sounds like a spoof song from The Lonely Island. Somewhere in the middle are some interesting tracks: the driving bass of Montana and its evocative mix of whirring synths and funk guitars; or the yearning melodies and layered Timbaland production of Say Something complete with vocals from Chris Stapleton for that extra hit of country authenticity. The trouble is these songs get lost – at sixteen tracks the album is exhaustingly long with horribly mixed results. Less a man of the woods, Timberlake seems utterly lost in his own self-indulgent, pretentious fantasy bubble.

Easily the best song of the lot is Midnight Summer Jam: an infectious disco tune with an effervescent chorus decorated with fiddles, harmonica and (worryingly) gunshots, and a glorious breakdown in its final section. It’s like a twilit cowboy rave, but equally it wouldn’t sound out of place on previous album ‘The 20/20 Experience’. Which begs the question: why bother with this man of the woods shtick anyway?

2/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* Filthy
* Midnight Summer Jam
* Montana

Listen: 'Man Of The Woods' is out now.



The Shape Of Water - Guillermo Del Toro

The Shape Of Water - Guillermo Del Toro

So many of this year's Oscar nominated films reflect different aspects of the zeitgeist: feminism, misogyny, diversity, racism, homosexuality. But only The Shape Of Water encompasses them all so wonderfully.

Not to say this is a box ticking exercise. The film is many things, but above all it's an adorable fantasy about a mute and her amphibian man-fish lover - the sort of strange, beguiling film that could only come from the mind of Guillermo Del Toro.

Its unlikely heroine is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who works as a janitor in a secret facility in Cold War Baltimore. She is mute, but her black co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is simultaneously her interpreter. Together with Elisa's homosexual, closeted neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), they form a sort of outsider rebellion, plotting to free the amphibian from experimentation and murder at the hands of The Straight White Man (Strickland - Michael Shannon).

Elisa is a likeable, caring protagonist who seems to attract difference. It's no surprise that she would fall for an amphibian creature - in him she finds the love and acceptance she deserves but never found. In this film the monstrous is compassionate and the human is monstrous. Shannon's Strickland is the embodiment of toxic masculinity: cold, misogynistic and corrupt.

While it's easy to read The Shape Of Water as a film championing difference, it works too as fantastical whimsy. There are shades of Amelie with its quirky lead, light jazz score and European sensibility, but it's equally a spy film, a comedy, a horror-romance. Spencer and Jenkins bring plenty of modern amusement to the film - two characters tragically ahead of their time - but there are nods too to classic Hollywood musicals and monster films. Despite its 1960s setting, there's a timeless cinematic quality to the film, which has no doubt aided its status as Oscar darling.

For all its subtle politics, however, the film is full of heart. Though at times it is a little too bizarre and its ending does err on saccharine, it is testament to the acting and the film's craft that such an odd story could be so genuinely moving. It is also typically Del Toro: a delicate amalgam of the strange, the frightening and the beautiful.

4/5

Watch: The Shape Of Water is out February 14th.


Friday, 2 February 2018

New Music Friday 02/02

If you ignore the new Timberlake album, there are some great tracks in this week's NMF. Here are just a handful...


CHVRCHES - Get Out

 CHVRCHES - Get Out

Just recently I was wondering when CHVRCHES would make a comeback. And here they are with a surprise new single that sounds...just like CHVRCHES. Nothing's changed since the release of their last album 'Every Open Eye', but the fizzing synths, bubbling melodies and vocals of Lauren Mayberry sound as good here as they ever have under the polished production of Greg Kurstin.



Tove Styrke - Changed My Mind

 Tove Styrke - Changed My Mind

How Tove Styrke isn't a huge global popstar is beyond me. She's had a whole string of brilliant pop singles that deserve to be riding high in the charts. Perhaps Changed My Mind will, you know, change the minds of the public. Or maybe that was just a terrible joke.



The Weeknd with Kendrick Lamar - Pray For Me


Two giants of music from the last few years join forces for the ultimate addition to the Black Panther soundtrack. It's not the first time they've collaborated - that was Sidewalks on The Weeknd's 'Starboy' album - and let's hope it won't be the last. It's clear both artists have tempered their sound for a family friendly audience, but it acts as a neat summation of recent popular trends.



Kojo Funds with RAYE - Check

Kojo Funds with RAYE - Check

Sampling Craig David's 7 Days, this is bound to be a massive hit. It also adds a garage twist to Kojo Funds' multi-faceted sound that already incorporates afro-swing, R&B and grime. It's also the rapper's most radio-friendly track to date - vocals from BBC Sound Of nominee RAYE will only help his cause.



Icarus - Love Has Come Around

Icarus - Love Has Come Around

What begins with a straight up sample of Donald Byrd's 80s disco hit Love Has Come Around soon morphs into its own beast. The high energy original becomes a more gentle, swirling euphoria of chopped vocal samples, guitars and pulsing synths. The Griffiths brothers have undoubtedly put their own spin on a classic.





Saturday, 27 January 2018

New Music Friday 26/01

A few unexpected delights in an otherwise unremarkable week...


Zedd & Maren Morris & Grey - The Middle

Zedd & Maren Morris & Grey - The Middle

Zedd had a surprise hit early last year with Stay featuring Alessia Cara. With The Middle he's attempting the same thing almost exactly: female vocalist, vocoder harmonies, choppy production. It's an enjoyable track but it's unlikely to hit the same heights.



Justin Timberlake feat. Chris Stapleton - Say Something

 Justin Timberlake feat. Chris Stapleton - Say Something

Another week, another rubbish new Timberlake song. His search for authenticity here manifests as singing trite lyrics over an acoustic guitar. It is, quite simply, boring.



George FitzGerald feat. Lil Silva - Roll Back

George Fitzgerald feat. Lil Silva - Roll Back

This is one of those songs that slowly creeps up on you. Synths buzz hypnotically, delicate falsetto vocals quiver, and once the beat kicks in you know you're utterly captivated. Roll Back is the first single from forthcoming second album 'All That Must Be' - keep an eye out in March.



Julia Michaels - Heaven

Julia Michaels - Heaven

Julia Michaels is better than this. The chorus lyric, "all good boys go to heaven but bad boys bring heaven to you", is a clever spin on the Fifty Shades theme, but it remains a lazy movie tie-in. Go listen to Clean Bandit's I Miss You instead.



James Blake - If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead

 James Blake - If The Car Beside You Moves Ahead

James Blake works in mesmerising minimalism. That's certainly true here, each line of the texture meticulously placed within a vacuum of space. The vocal is cleverly chopped up and processed into new melodies and rhythms, but it's also relentless and eventually becomes too much. Ironically, a little more minimalism here would've gone a long way.



Topic & Ally Brooke - Perfect

 Topic & Ally Brooke - Perfect

This is the second solo venture from Fifth Harmony's Ally Brooke. German producer Topic has crafted an addictive chorus beat, but the lyrics sound like a knock-off Jessie J song. A lack of personality means this is unlikely to challenge Camila Cabello as the more successful member of the band.



Thirty Seconds To Mars - Dangerous Night

 Thirty Seconds To Mars - Dangerous Night

Dangerous Night is one of the more electronic heavy songs that Thirty Seconds To Mars have done, but there's still a moody emo heart at its core. It's clear that Jared Leto and co. are seeking a more chart-friendly sound, but the main headline is the robotic camera they used for their performance on The Late Show - this is a band carving the future of rock.



Hazers - Drive

Hazers - Drive

Drive is a Chainsmokers-lite generic bop, but the syncopated chorus rhythms make this worth a listen.



ISLAND - Ride

ISLAND - Ride

This new track from the London-based indie band has a Temper Trap feel to it, its delayed guitars creating a shimmering waterfall of sound beneath the soulful vocal. The band's debut album 'Feels Like Air' is due in a couple of months and they'll be touring shortly after - Ride sounds like the kind of evocative track that will stun in a live environment. Still, the name is an SEO nightmare.



Tiesto, Gucci Mane, Sevenn - BOOM

 Tiesto, Gucci Mane, Sevenn - BOOM

Never has a title been so appropriate. I'm not sure I've ever heard a beat so huge.



Saturday, 20 January 2018

New Music Friday 19/01

If anything, this week's NMF proves that fresh talent is undoubtedly outdoing the return of major artists...


Mabel (with Not3s) - Fine Line

 Mabel (with Not3s) - Fine Line

Mabel follows up the ubiquitous Finders Keepers with this collaboration with rapper Not3s who was similarly nominated for the BBC Sound Of award this year. It may not be as infectious as that previous single, but it's clear that Mabel has a deep understanding of contemporary music trends - far more than the bigger artists releasing this week...



Kylie Minogue - Dancing

 Kylie Minogue - Dancing

Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. I think we've had too much of Kylie Minogue. The country verse is there for the Radio 2 fans, the annoyingly catchy electro chorus for the kids, but it's like two different songs spliced together. And at this point, the idea of Kylie going out dancing is laughably uncool. This is the first Kylie release since she signed to BMG, but from the sounds of this her career is dead.



Rudimental feat. Jess Glynne, Macklemore and Dan Caplen - These Days


Four artists are not better than one. These Days is proof. Rudimental are cooler than this Macklemore-led pop-rap production. Dan Caplen is underused. And Jess Glynne's bleating returns. Yay.



Justin Timberlake - Supplies

 Justin Timberlake - Supplies

For much of his career, Timberlake has been accused of appropriating black culture. On Supplies that's more apparent than ever. The production, courtesy of The Neptunes, is straight up trap, over which Timberlake boasts of his "supplie-ie-ies" and how he's a "generous lover" with the braggadocio of someone desperate to be liked. It's cold and lifeless with a video crammed with tired dystopian cliché. Suddenly all interest in 'Man of the Woods' is lost.



Troye Sivan - The Good Side

 Troye Sivan - The Good Side

Last week Sivan gave us the first true banger of the year with My My My!. Now he proves he can deliver a gentle acoustic ballad, peppered with bubbling electronics. Its lyrics plainly depict how Sivan's life improved after a breakup and the success of his last album, leaving his ex alone in his wake. He's capable of raw honesty as much as polished pop - his forthcoming album will likely fuse the two.



Tinashe - No Drama

 Tinashe - No Drama

A series of singles have failed to provide a worthy follow-up to Tinashe's debut album 'Aquarius'. No Drama sees her team up with Migos member Offset for another try. Its trap-inspired R&B sound is slick and ominous, but it's not the breakout hit she needs.



Cashmere Cat (with Major Lazer & Tory Lanez) - Miss You

  Cashmere Cat (with Major Lazer & Tory Lanez) - Miss You

The presence of Major Lazer brings dancehall rhythms to the glossy dance of Norway's Cashmere Cat, with rapper Tory Lanez providing vocals. Miss You is a low-key jam that builds towards a booming bass-driven chorus that'll sound epic after a few jagerbombs.



Rejjie Snow feat. Aminé - Egyptian Luvr

 Rejjie Snow feat. Aminé - Egyptian Luvr

When you think of Ireland, it tends to be acoustic folk and cheesy boybands. You're unlikely to think of laidback funk production that blends the best bits of Kaytranada and Frank Ocean. Irish rapper Rejjie Snow is breaking the mould with this seductive release ahead of a debut album due next month.