Wednesday, 19 April 2017
Remember when Bruno Mars used to be a cute doo-woppy popstar? "I'd catch a grenade for you." Aww thanks Bruno. "You're amazing just the way you are." Oh stop it, you're making me blush.
Now though, he stands onstage and orders his fans to "activate your sexy". He wants us to throw our Versace on the floor and "kiss 'till we're naked". He invites our asses to his condo to "pop it for a pimp...turn around and drop it for a pimp". And he sings an ode to the larger lady ("Girl, you better have your hair weave strapped on tight, 'cause once we get going, we rolling") with the word "CHUNKY" emblazoned on the screens behind him. Don't like it? Then you should "loosen them shoulders up...throw some perm on your attitude...you gotta lay it back...band, show her how to lay it back".
With third album '24k Magic', Bruno Mars has fully transformed from popstar next door to utter sleazebag. He may see himself as a ladies' man, but his lyrics come off as misogynistic as he sings vapid songs about sex and nothingness. The title track is the album's best, but does anyone have a clue what it's even about?
Sadly it's songs from '24k Magic' that make up the majority of the setlist for this world tour. Sparks fly, the stage is enveloped in bright colours, and the band bring plenty of energy as they frantically jump about the stage in an attempt to generate some interest. But nothing can elevate these songs, the seedy lyrics, or the constant crotch thrusting.
What's almost more offensive, though, is the complete lack of originality. For these songs, Mars has basically ripped off the 90s - Boyz II Men, Run DMC and everything in between. The smooth sex jams, the funk basslines, the chiming synths, the vocal harmonies. There's even a whole skit where he phones one of his countless (probably) female admirers for some sexy time. For the most part, it's laughable pastiche.
Mars is certainly a showman and he knows how to work an audience. His voice glides impressively to upper registers (accompanied by awesome backing singers) as he shows off some fancy footwork and oozes cool. Yet for all his showmanship, his act is 50% mediocre Michael Jackson impression and 50% Prince tribute, complete with purple lighting and average guitar playing. He's not a patch on either of the 24k idols he so desperately apes - he's bronze at best.
Towards the end, he eventually cracks out some of the older tracks: Grenade, Runaway Baby, Marry You and Locked Out Of Heaven. Noticeably it's these that get the audience on their feet, Uptown Funk most of all. They're fun and frivolous, suitable for the decidedly mixed audience of both teenage girls and middle-aged women.
Mars does try and claw back some credibility with an impassioned rendition of When I Was Your Man, seemingly close to tears. But with sexy well and truly activated, it's impossible to take this sincerity seriously - you can't be the player and the victim all at once.
Monday, 17 April 2017
Shit-faced Shakespeare is gimmick theatre, but the company throw themselves so whole-heartedly into it that you can't help but be swept along by its raucous entertainment.
As the bombastic voice-over introduction suggests, this is the X Factor of theatre: big, loud, Saturday night theatre that's watered down for the masses. Though there's nothing watery about the drinks. As the introduction continues, the rules are explained: the cast will attempt a wholly serious production (currently Much Ado About Nothing) but one of the actors is shit-faced, wasted, paralytically drunk.
That the production is shown in a comedy venue is fitting - this is an irreverent take on Shakespeare that's far more comedy show than it is serious theatre. Even less surprising is the success the company has had at fringe festivals across the country. At just over an hour long, it's a short burst of silliness that still leaves you time for a night of Woo Woos at the local Revs bar.
That said, the comedy is as polished as it is anarchic, presented by a cast of very capable actors. Whilst the text has been drastically cut, the verse is spoken well and the narrative (just about) stays intact. Yet plenty of modernisms slip through, largely owing to some improvisation around missed or - let's say - amended lines by the drunken actor, in this instance Rob Smythson as Claudio. Swearing and sexual innuendo ensue, but the cast mostly keep a straight face and cleverly interweave new lines with the actual script - Louise Lee's Leonata has a particular talent for this. Comic timing is excellent ensuring plenty of guffaws from the audience, whilst the use of traditional costumes and string versions of current pop songs only add to the anachronistic humour.
I do wonder how much of the comedy is staged, though. With eight years of similar productions, surely some jokes are repeated and some drunkenness is exaggerated. I usually end up asleep in a corner when drunk, never mind performing on-stage, but that probably says more about me than these performers. With such talent, it would be a joy to watch them in a serious production without gimmicks.
Yet they've found a successful niche, turning a sometimes impenetrable playwright into popular entertainment. Shit-faced Shakespeare is a rollicking time - and probably more so if you're shit-faced yourself.
Watch: Shit-faced Shakespeare runs at the Leicester Square Theatre until 16th September.
Friday, 14 April 2017
It was over a year ago that Dua Lipa was longlisted for the BBC Sound of award, and even longer since the release of debut single New Love back in 2015. A handful of songs later and here she is headlining the O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire before her debut album is even out. Welcome to the music industry 2017 - thanks streaming.
It's a feat even the star herself is surprised by, noting "I can't believe I'm doing a show like this before my album is released". It's as impressive a career move as it is frustrating for fans, who have been eagerly awaiting a full album while her label and management continue to push individual tracks up the streaming charts.
It also made this something of a strange gig, full of cheering fans familiar with only 60% of the setlist. It was essentially album promo before its release in June, giving these fans a taster of what's to come.
And what's that? More of the same: big pop hooks, dance beats, and a rich vocal that shows even more hints of her Albanian heritage in the sinuous melodies. "Let's keep this party going," she ordered enthusiastically, the fans expertly singing along to new music. That's as much down to the familiarity of her sound as it is well-written and catchy hooks. The self-titled album is certainly set to be a key pop release this year.
Still, you can't shake the fact we've heard the best already. But bangers like Hotter Than Hell and Blow Your Mind (Mwah) sound as good live as they do recorded, bold and loud pop tracks that deserved higher chart performance. And stripped back guitar versions of Thinkin' Bout You and New Love allowed for some sentimentality amongst the synths.
Surprisingly, though, it was Scared To Be Lonely, her duet with Dutch DJ Martin Garrix, that had the biggest reaction from the crowd, whilst a snippet of No Lies (on which she features with Sean Paul) had a similar response. These might be two of her biggest hits chart-wise, but a rousing finale of Be The One proved she can certainly command the stage alone.
It'll be interesting to see how the debut album performs in the chart considering it's predominantly a collection of singles we've already heard. Yet this gig was a resoundingly positive moment in Dua's career that demonstrated beyond doubt that she's proper pop star material.
Listen: 'Dua Lipa' is released on June 2nd.
Tuesday, 11 April 2017
Funny story: my dad once went to a party back in the 90s and was asked what music should be put on. His reply, in an attempt to look cool: "put some of that Jammyrocky on".
He was referring, of course, to space-pop acid-jazz sensation Jamiroquai, famous for hits like Cosmic Girl and Virtual Insanity as well as a penchant for headdresses (the name, incidentally, is a mix of "jam" and "Iroquai", a native American tribe). Dad was right - the band were pretty cool back in the day. But after changes in their sound, changes in record label and some unsuccessful releases, Jay Kay and co. seemed destined to remain a relic of the past.
As is typical of fashion, though, what was once cool tends to come back around. After the likes of Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake, Pharrell and DJ Todd Terje updated disco for 21st century tastes, Jamiroquai now return with a new album, 'Automaton'. It's something of a consolidation of their sound that sounds as fresh now as it ever did, all funk guitars, robotic synths and jazz-like lurches in harmony.
Opener Shake It On sets the tone with its space burbles and processed guitars, punctuated by smooth vocal harmonies and strings. Jay Kay's voice remains as instantly recognisable as ever and there's even a keytar solo. It really is the acid jazz of the early 90s as seen through the rose-tinted filter of today. The title track and lead single shifts into newer territory, its weird belching verses sounding like a robot vomiting before unfurling in a glittering chorus. This is Jamiroquai at their most daring, experimental and modern.
If the title track is representative of the rise of artificial intelligence that inspired the album, the remains of the album is slick, polished disco-funk that hits at the core of humanity: dancing. "I'm walking on air," claims Jay Kay on Cloud 9, whilst on Superfresh he asks "can I get another dance with you?" and on Something About You he feels "like dancin', takin' chances". From the shimmering Summer Girl to the cool midnight air of Dr Buzz, the stuttering jazz bass of We Can Do It to the metallic whirrs of Hot Property, Jamiroquai take us on a cosmic journey through their past highs into another galaxy.
You won't find the sort of pop hooks you remember from their heyday, but it barely matters. 'Automaton' is a complete world of irresistible dance rhythms and alien sounds that looks forward as much as it looks back - just like that new neon headdress. Free from previous label constraints and the high expectations of the pop charts, this is Jamiroquai revelling in exuberant joy. It's simple but it's fun.
But what does Jammyrocky's biggest fan have to say? Dad?
"It's the sort of disco they put on in a club at half time when everybody has tired of dancing and gone to the bar for a drink."
Oh. Please, somebody stop him before he starts a blog or something.
* Hot Property
* Dr Buzz
Listen: 'Automaton' is out now.
Wednesday, 5 April 2017
I’d love to know what Dominic Cavendish would think of this all-female version of Laura Wade’s Posh after his recent comments concerning the National Theatre's Twelfth Night starring Tamsin Greig.
Gender swapping roles is certainly in fashion at the moment, but with good reason. It’s something of a protest against the lack of female roles in theatre, but it’s also an experiment to see what extra this casting can bring to a text. In this instance, however, whether the female casting really adds something to the production or if it’s just following trends is up for debate.
Yes, the debate is about equality and opportunity. Yes, it’s about female actors being offered more substantial, typically ‘male’ roles. Yes, we may have a female Prime Minister (alongside other female political leaders), which is notable for such a political play. But I’m not sure if having women in the roles necessarily heightens the production in any meaningful way, beyond the initial shock factor of women acting in such a masculine (and disgraceful) manner.
Wade’s play centres on the male-only ‘Riot Club’ at Oxford University, a fictionalised version of the Bullingdon Club of which many of our recent political leaders have been members. They’re hosting one of their infamous dinners at a country pub, full of strange rituals, misogynist behaviour, and upper class pomposity at the expense of the working class (no pig heads were harmed here). Yet the play is an exploration of masculinity as much as it is white elitism and privilege. Here, the characters retain their male names and pronouns, but with women in the roles it feels too performative, a farcical parody of hyper-masculinity.
Perhaps this is the point – having women in these roles makes a mockery of masculinity. It certainly adds plentiful humour to the play. But it also lacks believability. If played straight, we would laugh at the absurdity of the situation yet be shocked at its potential realism. Here, the caricature performances are often played for laughs as we look down on these boys (they can hardly be considered men), but the play therefore lacks some bite and edge as a result. This is an alternate reality, not a bristling fictional recreation of our political climate.
One performance does stick out though: Serena Jennings as Alistair Ryle. She successfully finds a balance between mockery and believability, with a grounded performance that blurs the line between masculine and feminine. Spitting out soliloquies deriding “fucking poor people”, she is quite frankly terrifying. As the naïve Ed Montgomery, Verity Kirk offers a perfect comedic foil.
Elsewhere, the production has all the pros and cons of the original text: a cutting satire with a clever premise and often disturbing script, but a second half that moves too far into the fantastical with its ghostly apparition and cultish ending. Sara Perks’ revolving set spins us further and further into absurdity, whilst the music choices juxtapose classical grandeur with punk (Cherry Bomb by The Runaways is a particularly inspired choice). The use of slow motion and strobe lighting also ensure director Cressida Carré's production is a polished and stylish affair.
It’s debatable, then, whether Posh really transcends gender, but this production is certainly a thought-provoking and nonetheless enjoyable performance. It’s relevance is undeniable, if more for its views on women in theatre than for its politics.
Watch: Posh runs at the Pleasance Theatre London until 22nd April.
Images: Darren Bell
Wednesday, 29 March 2017
There's a parallel universe somewhere where Betty Who's debut album 'Take Me When You Go' got the recognition it deserves, where she's known as Betty Who and not Betty...Who?
As it stands, though, she's hovering in the pop niche, just on the verge of the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, Robyn and Katy Perry. 'The Valley' should change that.
At first listen, it's a similar, fizzy-pop affair that does little to progress her sound from her debut. Buoyant funk rhythms, bright pop hooks and infectious production are in abundance, alongside simple lyrics that occasionally border on saccharine cliché.
But like those other artists, there's more going on here. The opening title track initially seems out of place - an a capella gospel ballad sung in a hushed, low register - but it sets up the heartbreak that simmers throughout the album. "I know that you don't love me anymore," she repeats at the start, layered with harmony. It's an arresting, nostalgic start, but we soon lurch into the bubbly, boisterous Some Kinda Wonderful. On its own, its an effervescent pop track, but after The Valley it feels more like a memory of a past love, tinged with subtle sadness.
From here, the album is a mix of fizzing positivity and upbeat sadness, though whether this is reminiscence or new love is ambiguous. Best of all is when these worlds collide: "when you hear our song at least pretend you're missing me" she pleads before her heart erupts into a neon drop that crackles and sputters angrily on Pretend You're Missing Me. Eventually Who does move on from past heartache with Make You Memories and Reunion, whilst penultimate track Beautiful rounds off the album with a self-empowerment 70s funk anthem that's pure joy.
Or maybe this narrative doesn't exist and 'The Valley' is simply a collection of great pop songs. The influence of other artists is clear and the lyrics are littered with references: Mama Say is Who's ode to Britney Spears, whilst Reunion has a nod to Adele ("I tried to call a thousand times but I'm so bad at apologising"). It even ends with her cover of I Love You Always Forever by Donna Lewis. The love songs and the heartbreak and the self-empowerment are your typical pop staples, but unoriginality be damned. They're done here with such confidence and polish it's impossible not to crack a smile.
* Some Kinda Wonderful
* Pretend You're Missing Me
Listen: 'The Valley' is out now.
Sunday, 26 March 2017
It was at Spaceworld 2001 that Nintendo first unveiled the cartoon style of their then latest Zelda game, The Wind Waker. It was quickly dubbed 'Celda' as the people bemoaned their precious series transforming into what they perceived to be a kid's game. In retrospect, however, Wind Waker was a mature piece of storytelling beneath its exterior.
Yet the Zelda series had always been a cartoon. 1992's SNES classic A Link To The Past is remembered as a hardcore adventure, but its art style was far from adult. Fast forward to 2013 when Nintendo released A Link Between Worlds for the 3DS, a game that takes the art of A Link To The Past and updates it for a modern audience.
The result is the kids aesthetic we always feared. Zelda, Link, Ganon et al look more cutesy than ever. There's a whimsical, fairytale feel but it lacks the distinction of the varying art styles of the home console games and instead feels bland and uninspired.
In combination with the twee and saccharine story, A Link Between Worlds feels like a Zelda game aimed at children. Link must traverse Hyrule and its dark parallel Lorule to save seven sages (given little introduction) who have been turned into paintings by the evil wizard Yuga. Link himself is disappointingly a characterless and silent cipher, while the remaining cast are given simple, clichéd dialogue. The game even prompts you to stop playing after a while to rest your eyes, like your mum would do when you were eight years old.
The kiddy image is intriguing when much of the game's appeal lies in nostalgia. A Link Between Worlds is a direct sequel to A Link To The Past, with the same art style, a world map and enemies that are practically identical, a story with similar beats and recognisable music. At times it does spark warm and fuzzy memories - a literal link to the past - but mostly it's disappointingly overfamiliar. On discovering a repeat of an infamously annoying boss at the top of one dungeon - that giant cross eyed bug thing *shudder* - I felt simultaneously comfort and despair.
Getting there, however, is a joy. That's because this Zelda features some of the most enjoyable dungeons in the series. Their names do repeat the past and often riff on familiar ideas - the multiple levels of the Tower of Hera; the rescue mechanic in Thieves Hideout; the exterior/interior dynamic of Skull Woods. And yet the designers have twisted the familiar. Each dungeon offers theme and variation, with clever puzzles just on the right side of tricky as you change water levels, manipulate columns of sand and use darkness to your advantage. I wasn't stumped for long in each relatively short dungeon but completing them was immensely satisfying.
The art may be childish but the use of 3D brought out the child in me. The world is like a little toy box to be played with and the 3D heightens the gameplay. This is to Zelda what Super Mario 3D World is to Mario, proving the worth of the console's 3D effects. Link falls to his death through the screen or leaps out of it before your eyes, and the puzzles make great use of this new depth. Enemies do too: the bosses often have an obvious weak spot (it's the eye!), but their imposing nature is enhanced by the 3D. And never have Floormasters been scarier, those creepy hands that hover over the screen before slamming down on top of you.
But it's perspective as a whole that the designers played with. The main twist for this game is Link's ability to turn into a 2D image to walk along walls, allowing for an extra layer to consider when solving puzzles. It adds up to an incredibly satisfying adventure with depth to its visuals as well as its gameplay. Rarely has a handheld game felt so immersive.
However, the game's attempts to shake up the Zelda formula are ironically flat, with changes to the structure that don't push the boundaries far enough. Dungeons can be completed in any order, creating a welcome freedom of progression, but instead of your weapons being discovered in the dungeons, they are rented from a cheeky chap in (what else?) a bunny suit. Die and you're forced to hand them back.
This is meant to add tension and allow for creativity in Link's equipment, though in execution this isn't a success. Each dungeon still focuses on one weapon which is usually signposted on entry. Is there really much difference between finding a weapon inside a dungeon rather than renting it beforehand? Rupees are spread liberally around the world, so soon you'll have enough cash to buy the weapons permanently instead, negating any fear of death. And rarely does the game reach the high difficulty of its predecessor. That'll keep the kids happy.
As Link traverses dark and light, 2D and 3D, Nintendo traversed old and new with A Link Between Worlds. The changes it brought weren't enough to refresh the series - fans would have to wait for Breath of the Wild for a true breath of fresh air. Yet as a fun and clever little puzzle-adventure game, A Link Between Worlds does the Zelda name proud.
Wednesday, 22 March 2017
Zara Larsson is quite the opinionated popstar. The Swede's Twitter and Instagram feeds are filled with feminism, swears, memes, cute selfies and a distinct lack of bullshit. Throw in the fact that the best pop music is made in Sweden and Larsson really is a cool, youthful popstar for our times. Her millions of social media followers would certainly agree.
How, then, is 'So Good' so average?
It's the sound of a winning personality and decent vocalist being sucked into a personality vacuum. If Larsson is the quintessential 2017 popstar, then this debut is something of a tick list of trends. I Would Like is the cheeky sex jam. So Good is a pop song in the Ariana Grande mould that's so breezy it simply wafts by uneventfully, with a Ty Dolla $ign rap to boot. Sundown taps into dancehall flavours. Ain't My Fault is standard R&B pop fare.
None of these are bad songs. Far from it - 'So Good' is full of solidly constructed pop with polished production. And with almost all the tracks ending around the three minute mark, they come and go easily enough. It makes for an enjoyable listen, but it's empty. What's missing is Larsson. Much of the album could be sung by any other generic singer and be no less enjoyable. Where's the wit and sass we've come to expect?
A few songs do capture Larsson's essence. Breakthrough hit Lush Life was one of 2016's best pop tracks, Larsson living life "the way I wanna" over buoyant rhythms. The sad-pop TG4M looks to Robyn's Dancing On My Own for inspiration. The raw vocal of Funeral mirrors a relationship being torn apart. And Never Forget You, released with MNEK, remains a banger. Yet when one of your best tracks was released two years ago, there's a problem.
These tracks hint at the popstar potential of Larsson. But it's ironic that it all ends with the brilliantly euphoric Symphony - a Clean Bandit track on which she features, released on the same day. The inevitable success of that track will likely overshadow this album, but Larsson deserves to be more than a featured artist. 'So Good' just doesn't quite cut it.
* Lush Life
Listen: 'So Good' is out now.
Sunday, 19 March 2017
Just last week theatre critic Lyn Gardner's column was cut from the Guardian website, one of many examples of cuts to arts funding from all sides in a time of political uncertainty, when really we need the arts more than ever. The Frogs, then, couldn't come at a more timely moment.
Based on a 405 BC comedy from Aristophanes freely adapted by Burt Shevelove and "even more freely adapted" by Nathan Lane with music from Stephen Sondheim, it's a musical that truly celebrates the arts and receives its UK premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Set simultaneously in modern day and ancient Greece (yes that's correct), the narrative follows the god of drama and wine Dionysos (Michael Matus) and his slave Xanthias (George Rae) as they travel through the underworld to bring George Bernard Shaw (Martin Dickinson) back from the dead. Why? Because humanity will find solace in drama, saving the modern world from political strife (this modern version was written following the events of 9/11).
It's a singular political message that cleverly mirrors Aristophanes' work while updating it for a contemporary audience, filled with witty references to politics, musicals and culture. Each scene on the journey is a vignette that takes us deeper into the underworld, from a burly Herakles (Chris McGuigan), travelling aboard Charon's boat (Jonathan Wadey, having a lot of fun with the Johnny Depp meets Beetlejuice characterisation), a chorus of frightening frogs, through to a dominatrix Pluto (Emma Ralston). The show's climax is a wonderfully acted battle of words between Shaw and Shakespeare (Nigel Pilkington) to determine which playwright is most worthy to return to Earth. The theme of artists connecting across life and death adds a meta layer to the show that reflects the collaborative efforts of the writers and composer.
This may not be Sondheim's most original score, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. There are plenty of Sondheim-isms, from the wordy melodies (which the cast occasionally stumbled on) to the contrapuntal textures. There's more than a touch of Into the Woods here, while the frog chorus is suitably frightening and contrasts with some lush chorale singing.
Gregor Donnelly's set and costume design keeps things simple and modern with a few nods to Ancient Greece and director/producer Grace Wessels ensures this is a stylish and mostly polished production in the confines of the small theatre. It's certainly deserving of a larger space to fully-realise the imaginative scenes.
It's bookended, however, with scenes that directly address the audience. They may reflect Aristophanes and they may be entertaining, but they're also a little patronising and unnecessarily implore the message of the musical. It's important to ensure that art doesn't exist within a bubble, but The Frogs is essentially artists patting the backs of artists and it comes off as a little self-aggrandising. Yet with its layers of morality, philosophy and wit, it remains a deliciously intellectual production.
"Smile on us and bless our show", the cast sing to the audience in the opening number. Well I smiled plenty, so - for what it's worth - consider yourselves blessed.
Watch: The Frogs runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 8th April.
Photos: David Ovendon
Saturday, 11 March 2017
What's the difference between a mixtape and an album? Gone are the days of recording songs off the radio and on to a cassette to listen to later or impress a potential date. In hip-hop terms, a mixtape is generally an independently created and released recording, but nowadays it's pretty synonymous with the album. Except if it underperforms, well...it wasn't the "proper" album, right?
That's a shame because 'Number 1 Angel', Charli XCX's new mixtape, deserves to be considered a full album alongside 'True Romance' and 'Sucker'. This is more than just a stopgap until the next album. It marks a consolidation of her past records whilst looking to a new future.
Really, the mixtape label hints at the hip-hop influences on much of the record. The provocative cover alone drips with audacious, sexualised glamour, before opening track Dreamer sets a moody tone with its deep, booming synths, trap beats and rap-singing. Blame It On You, White Roses (a nod to Black Roses from her debut?) and Drugs all riff on the same sound, creating a structured sense of continuity and mirroring Aitchison's sexualised image. Features from Uffie, Abra and CupcakKe only add to the underground authenticity.
The darker sound also harks back to her debut and its gothic edge, but really 'Number 1 Angel' is packed with the pop hooks we've come to expect from Charli XCX. Babygirl fizzes with 80s glitter and juicy basslines, whilst ILY2 has a stomping rock vibe reminiscent of 'Sucker' that Sky Ferreira would be jealous of. Elsewhere, MØ - something of Aitchison's Danish equivalent - crops up on the buoyant 3AM (Pull Up), Roll With Me is full of vibrant, stabbing synths, and although Brit producer SOPHIE's influence (said to be involved in Aitchison's third album) is in much of this mixtape, it's most pronounced in the kinetic textures of closer Lipgloss.
Is 'Number 1 Angel' that third album in disguise, an album in mixtape clothing? It's clear that Charli XCX is an artist with a wealth of varied influences and a willingness to experiment. If this mixtape is just a quick release before the main event, it's deserving of a lot more fanfare.
Listen: 'Number 1 Angel' is out now.