Wednesday 31 August 2011

Ms Dynamite - Neva Soft

She's taken a couple of years out of the business to revel in motherhood, but now Dy-na-mi-TEE is back pon de radar with a new solo single.  Has it been worth the wait?

For Neva Soft she's teamed up with producer-of-the-moment Labrinth, best known for his work with Tinie Tempah and his solo track Let The Sunshine and is indeed "hot like potata".  The production is schizophrenic, jumping from reggae to drum and bass but somehow it all works with electric effect.  It gives the track a contemporary feel that brings the vocalist up-to-date. 

Her Mercury award winning debut album was influential in the UK garage scene.  By contrast, Neva Soft merely follows current music trends but as a result is a much easier listen.  She's not carving out a new future, but she's making the most of the present.


Tuesday 30 August 2011

Pixie Lott - All About Tonight

It's all about the Lott.

After a hiatus since her last single Broken Arrow and a brief appeareance on last year's X Factor, she's back with a new single, a new haircut (and apparently new shoes and a new attitude).  And it's actually alright.

This is bubblegum pop through and through, likely to burst to the top of the charts.  Yes it's simplistic.  Yes it's shallow.  But it's got everything you could want from a pop record: a catchy hook, sing-along chorus and a clear message (the title is pretty self-explanatory).  It's a song about letting your hair down and having a bit of fun.  So set aside any pretentious views and give the Pixie a chance.  Just don't listen to it too much or it won't just be about tonight, it'll be about tomorrow, the day after and the day after that...


Monday 29 August 2011

Cowboys & Aliens (2011) - Jon Favreau

Cowboys and aliens: two boyhood fantasies you wouldn’t expect to go together.  And you’d be right.

The majority of alien invasion films tend to take place in either the present or the near future.  So why not during a key period in American history?  It provides a clash of cultures that requires the audience to suspend their disbelief a little too much.

All Favreau seems to have done is take the characteristic tropes from each genre and throw them together in an explosive melting pot.  Saloon fights, lone rangers and Indian voodoo?  Check.  UFOs, strange technologies and frightening creatures?  Check.  It begins typically with Jake (Daniel Craig) awaking in the desert with amnesia.  How convenient.  Except, he has an odd bracelet attached to his wrist which he soon discovers has the ability to destroy the incoming alien vessels.  Along with the local Colonel (Harrison Ford) and a gang of cowboys, he sets out to destroy the alien base. 

Coming from the director of Iron Man, you’d expect the script to be tongue in cheek.  Humour there may be, but the film takes itself far too seriously overall.  As a result, the clich├ęd mise-en-scene is often unintentionally laughable.  The vistas are stunning, but the ‘turn around introduction close-up’ on characters faces and constant belt and hat grabbing become tiresome.  In terms of the acting, Craig does his best Clint Eastwood impression as the strong and silent type, Ford’s performance is geriatric and Olivia Wilde (the love interest of course) blankly pouts her way through the film.  At least, then, we have Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, which cleverly fuses blues guitar, Morricone-esque orchestration and alien synthesisers.  It proves that perhaps the joining of these genres wasn’t such a bad idea.

Cowboys & Aliens is entertaining enough, but should probably be left to boyhood imaginations.


Thursday 25 August 2011

The Inbetweeners Movie (2011) - Ben Palmer

In 2000 there was Kevin & Perry Go Large.

Now, we have The Inbetweeners Movie.

It's the end of school and the obvious thing to do is go on holiday with your mates.  So the lads of the Pussay Patrol set out to Malia for an epic fortnight - getting wasted, acting like playaaaas and getting knee deep in clunge (if you don't understand that, you really shouldn't be watching this film).  It's everything you could expect from the infamous schoolboys.  Yes, the plot is awfully predictable, cringeworthy and awkward.  And yes, it is essentially an extended episode of the tv show.  But when it's this utterly hilarious, who really cares?

So what can we learn from the lads about summer holidays?  Here are some top tips:

* Don't spend the whole time pining after your ex - you're bound to find a rebound at some point.
* Girls will always be impressed by your dancing skills.
* If there are towels on a sun lounger, they're probably there for a reason.
* Don't trust your mates to put suncream on your back.
* Elderly women may be ugly, but experience counts for a lot.
* Bidets are not "children's toilets".
* If things seem bad, at least you're not Will.
* However disastrous the holiday, you can always rely on your best mates to get you through.
* But most of all, don't EVER borrow someone elses rolled up note when doing a line.  You have NO idea where it's been...


Wednesday 24 August 2011

Florence + The Machine - What The Water Gave Me

Speaking to NME about her new track, Welch said:

"I was writing the song and this book on symbolism was lying around, and it had the painting in it.  It's nice to mix the ordinary with extraordinary".

What The Water Gave Me is anything but ordinary, but it doesn't quite hit the heights of Welch's extraordinary Lungs.  The track is named after a painting by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and inspired by the death of Virgina Woolf ("Pockets full of stones").  It's the sort of subject matter that few artists would dare to touch, exploring the fantastical, the deathly and the extraordinary in an ode to the elements.

So what of the production?  It starts with a darker, ghostly sound but has a much heavier feel than her previous material.  When the chorus hits, the softly sung melody and its trills have a folky feel emphasised by the backing chorus which gives a sing-song quality - perfect for festivals.  Structurally, it's one long crescendo punctuated by a series of anticlimaxes, but even in the final epic chorus Welch's voice isn't given the space it needs to truly soar.  There's a much greater emphasis on guitars which overpower the vocals, displacing the harp for a far less ethereal sound.  And the lame video is pretty ordinary.

Welch is undoubtedly a master of her art, but What The Water Gave Me doesn't quite match the sublime Rabbit Heart or Cosmic Love.  It does, however, pave the way for a second extraordinary album.


Tuesday 23 August 2011

Will Young - Jealousy

Will Young is well known for his polite pop music.  It may not set the music world alight, but, like himself, it's easily likeable.

Jealousy is indicative of the fact that Young is not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve.  The lyrics are simple yet poignant, underlined by the sexually ambiguous video.  Unrequited love may be a fairly standard theme, but rarely is it stated as plainly and apologetically as here - a similar vein to Who Am I?Yet the production is clearly influenced by the work Young did with Groove Armada last year (the excellent History).  The pop-disco feel is juxtaposed with the gentle, tender vocal - an endearing combination.


Monday 22 August 2011

Marina & The Diamonds - Radioactive

"I'm pissed off I'm not bigger" spouted Marina at the start of the year.  But if Radioactive is anything to go by, she won't be increasing her fan base anytime soon.

At least with her first album Marina had developed her own unique brand of quirky pop, sounding totally individual.  Now she's sold out and released a generic dance track with zero personality, yet which will probably sell by the truck load.  The main synthesiser riff is a cool and catcy hook, but the production as a whole is dull.  Moreover, in the same interview Marina claimed her new material would be "quite political...about feminism and sex. It's an abrasive pop record", but judging by Radioactive it is in fact totally conformist.

Before, Marina was a diamond in the rough.  Now she'll likely be covered in them, but ironically she's lost her sparkle.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Submarine (2010) - Richard Ayoade

The coming of age film is a well worn genre, but with Submarine the I.T Crowd's Richard Ayoade offers a different and refreshing take on the genre for his cinematic debut.

Our protagonist is Oliver Tate, a precocious welsh teenager and a rather odd character.  He keeps tabs on his parents marriage and sex life by noting whether the dimmer switch on their bedroom light has been used.  And that's just the start.  But when he is seduced by his classmate Jordana, he must learn to balance his own relationship with that of his parents.  Can he prevent his mother from cheating with their mystic neighbour?  What impact will Jordana's dying mother have on their relationship?

It's a morbid and ironic comedy, humour deriving from the death of a parent, a pet or a relationship.  Just as Oliver balances his relationships, Ayoade deftly balances the dark and light of the narrative.  And its Ayoade's direction that really shines here through each awkward situation.  The film has its own unique style - an indie film that's equally artistic and accessible.  The beautifully shot landscapes match the mood of teenage turmoil.  More so, Ayoade injects some cinematic humour by using film techniques to poke fun at the script, all handled with subtlety.  And though I'm not a fan of Alex Turner, his music is well suited to the film.

It's an awkward and odd plot but brought to life through some creative direction.  Oliver may have more than a whiff of Ayoade's trademark geeky humour, but his directing talent is undeniable.


Tuesday 16 August 2011

Moves Like Jagger - Maroon 5 feat. Christina Aguilera

Like me, you've probably heard this quite a bit on the radio recently.  And like me, you probably had no idea this was a Maroon 5 track.

It sounds nothing like them, minus Adam Levine's vocal of course.  It's more akin to a Jamiroquai track, with electro bass and funk guitars.  Just compare it to This Love, their first major hit.  Admittedly, this sonic transition has been coming since Makes Me Wonder, so it comes as no surprise.  It's just a shame that the band have somewhat abandoned their definitive sound.

Moves Like Jagger isn't horrific, it's just unexpected.  Lyrically, this is your typical song about shagging in a club. Yawn.  What exactly does that have to do with Mick Jagger?  The video begins with various pieces of footage of Jagger and appears to be a celebration of the Englishman's work, with Levine singing to a Union Jack backdrop.  Why then does the video culminate in a celebration of America with a stars and stripes backdrop?  It's too confusing.  Then there's Aguilera's over-produced effort in the middle eight: a cheap and desperate attempt to gain some extra cash. 

It may be catchy, but that whistling sure gets old quickly...


Monday 15 August 2011

Super 8 (2011) - J.J Abrams

Super 8: a.k.a E.T for the next generation.  It's essentially the same story about a boy and an alien who... well, that would be telling.  Cynics will reduce the plot to a simple rehash of the E.T story - needless to say the similarities are numerous.

Though written and directed by J.J Abrams, it's got producer Steven Spielberg written all over it - aliens, children and soppy ending on the checklist.  Our protagonists are a group of children in quiet suburban America, spending their summer holiday making a homemade zombie flick.  But after a freak train crash, all hell breaks loose in their town as the military deploy a mass operation to cover-up the escape of a mysterious creature.  With children as the protagonists, it gives the audience a wide-eyed innocent view of the events, harking back to our own childhoods when boredom set in during the summer months.  However, it also makes the narrative far less believable, especially towards the film's climax.  How exactly did a bunch of pesky kids get past the military and end up in a warzone unscathed?  It's also a cheap method of extracting sympathy from the audience.  Suspend your disbelief though and the film does provide a well constructed mystery - just don't go expecting Lost levels of thrilling complexity.

Yet there's another layer to the film - the children's zombie disaster flick.  This provides the core thread of the narrative, their filmmaking cleverly paralleling that of Abrams himself.  Moreover, it provides the film with a brilliant credits sequence - hilarious and full of movie references ('Romero Industries' anyone?).  The title of Super 8 is itself a reference to an old format of motion picture photography and the first camera used by Abrams and Spielberg during their respective childhoods.  As such, the film can be read as an hommage to film buffs and filmmakers across the globe, as well as an opportunity for the film's creators to relive their youth.

It's also a film about accepting past events, however grievous, and moving on with life: broken families are often mended in extreme circumstances.  In Abrams's case, I hope he moves on from his relationship with Spielberg and creates something a little more original for his next project.


Sunday 14 August 2011

Doubt (2008) - John Patrick Shanley

An exercise in how doubt can askew the senses – and the camera. 

Here we have two realms of the church - the ostentatious, ceremonial priesthood and the cold, usually imperturbable, nunnery and school.  These opposing worlds collide when a priest is accused of abusing a black child by the iron-tongue of the school principal Sister.  But is he a paedophile?  Or just a compassionate priest taking pity on an isolated child?  Finally, are the Sister’s doubts with the priest’s allegiance to the church or with her own faith?

Doubt’s ambiguity is its strength, cleverly drip-feeding the audience information so that we too question the fidelity of the priest.  Increasingly obscure camera angles reflect growing distrust as paranoia creeps in and tensions mount further with each subsequent scene.  Moreover, the utterly captivating performances from each actor involved are perfectly nuanced.  Audiences will be divided over the film’s outcome, undoubtedly Shanley’s intention.


For more 150 word reviews, visit Screen 150.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Fair Game (2010) - Doug Liman

“Wife.  Mother.  Spy”

Or, the trials and tribulations of the modern woman.  Is this a political film about the Iraq war?  Or a simple film about a woman balancing work and family?

Liman’s biopic about CIA agent Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) attempts to do both, but sooner or later a choice must be made – remember, “no politics at the table”.  The film acts as political comment, the dire search for weapons of mass destruction revealing the futility of war and racial prejudices between the American and Iraqi people.  This being biographical, news footage is utilised for historical accuracy; in particular a statement from the real Valerie Plame played during the credits for a poignant ending.

Ultimately, though, the film is more concerned with family values.  When Valerie’s true identity as a CIA agent is revealed, it strains the relationship with her husband Joe (Sean Penn) and the boundaries between work and family are blurred.  When marriage resides on a series of post-its, can it be saved?  Liman’s prerogative is with the impact of the war on family, whichever side of the Atlantic.  Valerie’s situation is paralleled with an Iraqi woman who risks her life to save her family in Iraq, but is let down by the CIA.  Rather than focusing on the ineptitude of the American government, Liman chooses to focus on the personal issues raised, but his approach feels cold and clinical, despite strong performances from Watts and Penn.

So what is the true identity of Fair Game?  Political thriller or family drama?  I don’t think even Liman knows.  Sure, the film raises questions of political intrigue, but the central focus on family proves less than thrilling. 


Friday 12 August 2011

Camden Fringe - Week 2

Reviews from the second week of the Camden Fringe, as written for On The Fringe.

Killing Swine @ Theatro Technis

Thursday 11 August 2011

One Direction - What Makes You Beautiful

Taking a look at the chart, X-factor is pretty prominent.  JLS are riding high towards the top; Leona Lewis and Olly Murs both have new singles imminent; and don't even get me started on Swagger frickin' Jagger herself...

And now there's Wand Erection to add to the list.  What Makes You Beautiful is basically the result of combining McFly, Grease's Summer Nights and Pat Benetar's Hit Me With Your Best Shot in a pink fluffy cupcake.  They're all in the same bloody key.  It's not exactly a bad song per se, it's just unoriginal and clearly aimed at the tween demographic.  It's a damn sight better than Lloyd's contrived attempt at being cool.  At least these five Pokemon playing, Bieber wannabes accept what they are - a simplistic, cheesy pop act that will get ten year old girls across the country weeing themselves with excitement.

Still, even reviewing this is pointless.  While they should be going nowhere, there's only one direction these boys are heading - the top of the charts. Sigh.


Wednesday 10 August 2011

Jay-Z & Kanye West - Otis

In light of the recent riots sweeping across the UK, The Mirror has decided to blame "the pernicious culture of hatred around rap music" for the violence that's occured.  Of course, this is sensationalist trite.  But is it mere coincidence that 'Watch The Throne', the collaboration from Jay-Z and Kanye West, is set to be the number one album this week?

The last time these guys got together, it resulted in the number one single Run This Town with Rihanna.  Admittedly, after recent days, the line "Life's a game but it's not fair / I break the rules so I don't care" may ring alarm bells, but it's also easily misconstrued.  If anything, rap music is a comment on gang culture, not a catalyst.

And let's not forget the musical worth.  With Otis, J & K have opted to sample one of the musical greats - Otis Redding.  The sample of Try A Little Tenderness forms the basis for the whole track and is perhaps a subtle message to all those "haters" out there.  Indeed, with lines like "Driving Benzes, wit’ no benefits / Not bad huh? For some immigrants", it inspires a hardworking rise to fame that criminals ignore.  The original song is here totally transformed, the production simple and punchy.  The different styles of the two rappers blend well together and can be seen on the rest of 'Watch The Throne'.  It contains a number of further collaborations, inlcuding Mr Hudson, Frank Ocean and Beyonce, each artist bringing their own swagger to a melting pot of hip-hop.  Otis isn't the best track though - check out Made In America and No Church In The Wild (what a bassline...). 

As a final thought, remember that music is an art form.  Art has always been controversial throughout the ages and artists are entitled to artistic freedom.  So don't blame music for the atrocities that have befallen us.


Monday 8 August 2011

Kasabian - Days Are Forgotten

Now I confess, I've never been a fan of Kasabian.  But Days Are Forgotten does nothing to change my view.

Of their best output, Shoot The Runner at least has a simple yet punchy guitar riff (and a cool video to boot) and Empire has a pretty powerful chorus.  But Days Are Forgotten?  It's just dull.

From the opening it's got that typical Kasabian sound.  The verse, though, is the very definition of monotonous, in terms of both the guitars and the vocal melody.  Plus there's that incessant falsetto "ahh" that does my head in.  The chorus at least provides some variety, but it totally lacks the driving power of their better tunes.  And then there's the lyrics "chewing on monkey brains".  Someone's been watching too much Indiana Jones...

Most of all, and ironically enough, this track is just forgettable noise masquerading as "indie rock".



Sunday 7 August 2011

Gran Torino (2008) - Clint Eastwood

Gran Torino is a veritable melting pot of themes.  It deals with an elderly man (Walt Kowalski - Eastwood) coming to terms with the death of his wife and the guilt he feels for losing touch with his family as he struggles to survive in modern day, multicultural America - a country dominated by the younger generation. 

Ultimately, though, it's a film about heroism and redemption.  At the start, none of the characters are particularly likeable: from the local brown-nosing vicar, to Walt's patronising and selfish family; but none more so than Walt himself, a man who is more in love with his Gran Torino car than his own family.  A growling racist disappointed with life, he's out of touch with modern times and is dismayed at the influx of foreigners to America including the "barbarian Chinks" who live next door.  But when their young son Thao gets caught up with a local gang, Walt (predictably) becomes the unlikely hero to step up to the plate and deal with the situation.  As such, the film is essentially a typical buddy movie between Walt and Thao, with Walt gradually revealing his gooey inner heart and, in the process, dealing with his guilt from the Korean war. 

The narrative deals with the themes sensitively, even if the plot is fairly predictable.  More unfortunate is Walt's character.  His transition from grumpy old man to loveable neighbour is well played, but it's a stereotypical softening of character seen before countless times - not least in Eastwood's own Million Dollar BabyThe film itself, though, mirrors Walt - what begins as a hard film to crack soon reveals its warm, fuzzy centre.  It also furthers Eastwood's position as one of the eminent directors of his generation.


Saturday 6 August 2011

Shutter Island (2010) - Martin Scorsese

It was Freud who discovered that the cure to neurosis was to uncover its repressed source in the mind.  It's this notion that structures Shutter Island, a film that blurs the boundaries between mental illusion and reality.

It takes the form of a Hitchcockian exploration of psychosis, with a touch of Victorian gothic drama.  Set in 1950's America, Leonardo DiCaprio plays US Marshall Teddy Daniels, tasked with investigating the disappearance of a patient from the mental asylum on Shutter Island.  On arrival, things quickly go awry, with various suspicious characters seemingly out to hinder Daniels's inquiry.  What begins as a typical detective mystery scenario descends into madness, literally.  Though the final twist is easily predicted within the first twenty minutes thus rendering the denouement fairly unsatisfying, the narrative is well constructed and plays out with intensity and suspense, despite the presence of a number of tropes typical of the genre.

What really shines here is the lighting (excuse the pun).  The island itself is suitably foreboding, with sharp cliff faces and dark swirling skies creating a frightening atmosphere.  The constant storm allows for some intense contrasts in the lighting more typical of the horror genre, heightening the suspenseful atmosphere.  As for the acting, DiCaprio performs well as Scorsese's male muse but the inclusion of Ben Kingsley as the psychiactric doctor is an obvious choice that undermines the mystery of the plot.

The narrative may have its shortcomings, but as a thrilling mood piece Shutter Island is a success.


Friday 5 August 2011

Camden Fringe Festival - Week 1

Reviews from the first week of the Camden Fringe Festival, as written for On The Fringe.

Alternative @ The Etcetera Theatre

Once Upon A Sketch @ The Etcetera Theatre

Thursday 4 August 2011

Chapel Street - Luke Barnes @ Old Red Lion Theatre

“You know sometimes when you’re drinking, you feel a bit ill and you dread every swig, but you do it anyway because you want to get drunk?”

Chapel Street is a bit like those government speeding adverts – all is fun and games until *wham* the car hits.  It’s a suitable warning as to the dangers of alcoholism and drink culture, one that’s incredibly funny along the way.

This clever piece of writing is hopefully the first of many from Luke Barnes.  It details a drunken night in the lives of Joe and Kirsty, two characters whose lives are drawn together like magnets with electric effect.  The play is structured as two separate monologues performed simultaneously, juxtaposed with hilarious effect.  It’s a witty script, with each character’s anecdotes serving as both comic patter and comment on the opposing story.  Though the humour was particularly crude, it proved totally appropriate to the two characters and had the audience in stitches throughout.  And this is a crude world of sex, alcohol and sleazy bars; a world that the stiflingly hot Old Red Lion Theatre highlighted.  As the two narratives intertwine, the play builds towards a shocking climax (literally).  Though the final twist was a little predictable, it served as a suitably sobering end.

Kendrick and Zmitrowicz excelled as Joe and Kirsty, the casting perfect.  Both performed with natural ease and exceptional comic timing.  This was especially impressive due to the alternating nature of the script – neither actor seemed like they were aimlessly waiting for their next cue.  Kendrick successfully portrayed both the laddish banter and downtrodden aspirations of a broken man, whilst Zmitrowicz’s Vicky Pollard-esque delivery illustrated endearing naivety. 

Chapel Street is a perceptive representation of modern drink culture in theatrical form: intelligently written and shockingly funny.


Old Red Lion Theatre, 2-20 August,

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Housse de Racket - Roman

Following on from other French electro acts Air and Phoenix comes Housse de Racket.  They began as session musicians for their predecessors and much of their sound has rubbed off - catchy, melodic electro-pop.  There's undoubtedly a touch of Passion Pit in their too.

Roman is the single from their upcoming album 'Alesia' (released later this month).  It's a dynamic track, owing to its rhythmic diversity.  The opening guitar riff provides an indie-rock flavour, fusing with the energetic synthesiser melodies with pleasing effect.  It's instantly catchy, though once you get over the initial attraction Roman proves a little repetitive and structurally unsatisfying.  And the fade-out ending is lame.  Still, it's well worth a listen and further establishes France as the epicentre of electro.


Tuesday 2 August 2011

The Drums - Money

For many, The Drums were the sound of summer 2010 - Let's Go Surfing gracing the airwaves with wistful Americana. 

One year later and the band are releasing their second album, from which Money is the first single.  Not much has changed; this is instantly recognisable, if a little too familiar.  The basslines drive along, colliding with synthesiser and vocal melodies that are memorable and easy to sing along to.  It's a track that favours repeated listening: once the chorus hooks have well and truly stuck, the song becomes incredibly addictive.  The Drums have managed to make something nostalgic sound refreshing and novel, though hopefully the remainder of their next album 'Portamento' will offer some variety.

And don't worry about the money situation lads; it's something we're all feeling...


Monday 1 August 2011

SBTRKT - Wildfire

I've always wondered how anyone can describe a bassline as "dirty".  But now I know - the bassline to Wildfire isn't just dirty, it's positively filthy.  If music could be pornographic, this track would be its distillation.  The sonic sex appeal is only added to by Little Dragon singer Yukimi Nagano, whose vocal is filled with wanton sexuality.

It's a shame then that the track never really develops.  Aside from the beat, providing a foil to the bassline's syncopation, Wildfire (ironically enough for its title) doesn't go anywhere.  Still, it's a totally grind-worthy record that you won't regret the morning after the night before.