Wednesday, 29 February 2012

School of Seven Bells - Ghostory

The latest album from School of Seven Bells probably won't have been on your radar. But for fans of M83 and other dream pop artists, SVIIB should be a priority.

So who are these guys? From New York, the duo consist of Benjamin Curtis and Alejandra Deheza. 'Ghostory' marks their first release following identical twin Claudia Deheza's departure and it's their third album after debut 'Alpinisms' (2008) and 'Disconnect From Desire' (2010). And the name? It comes from a mythical South American pickpocket training academy. Right.

Musically this is all whooshing synth pads, reverbed guitars, slow beats and Deheza's ethereal vocal (now lacking the harmonies of her sister) all heavily layered together. It's an incredibly expansive and cinematic sound, the sort of music that transports you away from it all to a dark, ponderous place in your head. Single Lafaye is the most memorable track with its "la la la" chorus, but the rest of the tracks lack standout killer hooks. But this works in the album's favour, allowing you to impose your own thoughts and feelings. Like Errors' recent 'Have Some Faith In Magic', whatever you may be doing 'Ghostory' will provide a suitably dreamy and evocative soundtrack to surreal alternate dimensions, futuristic landscapes and supernatural figures in swirling mists. The video for Lafaye (see below) doesn't do the music justice.

But what of the title? 'Ghostory' is actually a concept album about a girl named 'Lafaye', haunted by ghosts that surround her. Not that you'd really know - Deheza's gently whispered vocals are obscured by the whirling production, becoming just another ghostly texture in the haze. As such, it's the overall feel and mood of the music that grabs you. 'Ghostory' is a sensory, and sensual, listen of spectral thrills - the "devour me" of The Night especially. It lacks the pop sensibility and immediacy of M83's work, but give it time and the intricacies of the production will wash over you, whispering like ghosts at the back of your neck. Like the lyrics to Scavenger, this will make you feel something, even if you feel nothing.


Gizzle's Choice:
* The Night
* Lafaye
* Scavenger

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Plan B - iLL Manors

Plan B is back and his return is twofold - a return to the music scene after the success of 'Strickland Banks' but also a return to the hip hop of his earlier work, rather than the soul he's now known for.

Every story has two sides and iLL Manors is no exception. Musically, this is well produced - full of fire and aggression that match the lyrics. At its core is a string riff that's as tense as it is repetitive. This expands in the chorus to include a heavy bassline and powerful drums, over which Plan B spits out his lyrics.

However, it's here that things get dangerous. Lyrically this is a politically charged maelstrom - some may call it storytelling, others will call it a rant. Take a look at the middle eight which depicts the central message of the song:

"We've had it with you politicians
You bloody rich kids never listen
There's no such thing as broken Britain
We're just bloody broke in Britain"

Now here is not the place to discuss the political value of the lyrics, they're an opinion after all. And at the least a record this confrontational and passionate is a welcome change to the majority of generic beige pop that fills the charts. But a record this spiteful, one-sided and blinkered is a risky strategy - some will relate, some will be offended. And now he's a multi-millionaire musician, Plan B is arguably closer to the "little rich boys" he attacks in the chorus which is difficult to swallow, even though the lyrics of course relate to his past. Or is this an attack on rich boy politicians specifically? Certainly this is a record that poses questions, questions stereotypes but is sterotypically furious.

With iLL Manors, Plan B has created an impressive record that commendably has a political voice as well as a musical one. Yet rather than healing current economic situations, he succeeds only in reigniting class divisions. In the process, he's just as likely to lose as many fans as he is to gain.


Listen: iLL Manors is released on March 25th, with the new album available in May.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Lianne La Havas - Forget EP

Anyone worried that La Havas's restrained soul was edging on repetitive, look no further than her latest EP, 'Forget'. It's more diverse than previous EP 'Lost and Found' with the dreamy No Room For Doubt, showing us a different side to her work and proving there's more to this lady than at first listen.

It begins with the gritty guitar opening of title track Forget. Combined with the drums and synth wobbles, the music poses a suitable juxtaposition to La Havas's silky vocal. It's not what you'd expect from the singer, but it's a welcome contrast. Next up is a live version of a newly written track Au Cinema, the introduction of which shows her capacity to laugh at herself despite her 'serious artiste' persona. The central electric guitar riff shuffles along, the jazz harmonies creating a nuanced rise and fall of tension and release. It's a track with far more urgency than her more laidback material. At the centre of the EP is a demo version of Gone. It's clear that ballads are La Havas's forte and this track is no exception. A stripped back, voice and piano affair, it's with this track that her vocal is in full force. It begins with barely a whisper but by the end she's belting out the chorus in a stream of raw emotion - "What the heck man, last time I checked man we had it all and it was just me and you / So what happened to you? I thought I knew you, no more chances - I'm gone". And with a touching final breath the music fades. Same As Me is a more standard jazz piece - lovely in its own way but typical of the La Havas's we already know. Finally, there's a reworking of first track Forget by Two Inch Punch. It's a well processed, dubstep remix in James Blake style. The apparent simplicity of her work lends itself to remixes which here makes an interesting antithesis.

Central to her sound is an incredible vocal that melts like butter. Yet with the mix of styles and the inclusion of both a demo and live track on this EP, it's clear La Havas is willing to test the water with something a little different - she's an artist who's not afraid to take a risk. With 'Forget' it definitely pays off.


Listen: 'Forget' and 'Lost and Found' are available now. Her self-titled debut album is expected in May.

Watch: La Havas will be performing in the UK in March

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Horrible Bosses (2011) - Seth Gordon

Horrible Bosses is one of the most frustrating films you will see.

Three guys (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis) are stuck working under abominable bosses - the "total fucking asshole" (Kevin Spacey), the "evil crazy bitch" (Jennifer Aniston) and the "dipshit cokehead son" (Colin Farrell).  Their bosses are making their lives a misery, but in the middle of the recession the likelihood of finding other jobs are slim.  Yes it really is that depressing.  So when the guys fantasize about murdering their bosses, they realise in reality it is their only option.

Of course, everything goes wrong in the most farcical manner that will have you squirming in your seat and shouting at the screen in frustration.  Everyone can empathise with the guys' situations and the chance to fantasize vicariously through them should be a winner.  The problem is that none of them are particularly likeable.  Rather than rooting for them, I found myself hoping the dumbasses get caught - their failures are predictable and idiotic as they fumble their way through the film.  Ultimately, they don't deserve the promotions they're striving for, judging by the lack of intelligence they display.  Spacey and Farrell may be playing incredibly annoying men, but it's always fun to indulge your malicious side and it's obvious they had a lot of fun in front of the camera.  Aniston, meanwhile, is hilarious.  The humour may be at a very base level, but her character is given the majority of the crudely amusing lines - "I fingered myself so hard...I broke a nail" being a suitable example.  Evidently, the script does have some witty one-liners (mostly found in the trailer), but they're overshadowed by the overall ridiculous plot that couldn't end soon enough. 

In the end, only one question remains: if Jennifer Aniston was handing herself to you on a plate, why say no?


Friday, 24 February 2012

Sam Sparro - Happiness

Everyone knows Black and Gold but since then Mr Sparro has been doing...well not much.  But his return is imminent with the release of second album 'Return To Paradise' in Spring this year, from which Happiness is taken.  But is it a black spot or a gold star?  (Yes I just went there).

The title is certainly suitable.  Lyrically this is a sweet song about emerging into a happier state of mind - "I can see the sun coming up and I need it, I feel like I've been down for a while".  They're nothing out of the ordinary but matched by the uptempo, funky house production.  If funk is the direction of the new album, we're on to a winner.  Happiness is the sort of track destined for the clubs and Ministry of Sound CDs - with remixes comes further recognition.  But it's lacking a real killer hook to grab the listener's attention and just feels a bit...standard.  Radio friendly this is not.  Quite simply, this just isn't as good as Black and Gold.

So Sparro makes the grade, but doesn't quite earn a gold star.


Listen:  Happiness will be featured on the upcoming album 'Return To Paradise' released this Spring.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Shrek: The Musical @ Drury Lane Theatre

From the heights of the first film to its sequels and spin-offs, each consecutive Shrek film has gone downhill. Shrek: The Musical is just a watered down version of the original and continues the sequels' descent. Don't be fooled by the giant 'S' outside the theatre or the silly ears - this is not the Shrek you know and love.

So how do you attempt to make an average stage show from a hit film? Take a cue from Shrek and follow these five simple steps:

Step 1 - Write an identical script to the film

Include all the jokes and one-liners that everyone knows and loves. In the process, struggle to add in anything novel that differentiates your show from its source, aside from the odd comedy moment like the cow that jumps over the moon. Throw in some amusing piss-takes of other musicals to provide the funniest moments, whilst simultaneously highlighting how much better they are than your own show.

Step 2 - Write some new songs...

...that ultimately add nothing to the story, regardless of your anthemic intentions. Make them as slushy and cheesy as possible in an attempt to expand on the already flimsy characters, but forgettable enough that nobody will bother to buy the soundtrack. If no one is singing the songs when they leave, you've got an average hit on your hands...right?

Step 3 - Create some fantastic sets and costumes

Make sure your show is visually exciting with moving sets and colourful costumes that perfectly replicate the film. Of paramount importance is a singing, puppet dragon to fly over the audience in a thrilling finale but ultimately under-use. Most importantly, though, smother everything in GREEN. Then screw up the technical side with fuzzy sound levels so the audience can't discern the lyrics. Either that, or cast actors who fail to enunciate in the lead roles.

Step 4 - Find a talented ensemble...

...and then give them jack all to do. Make sure they all have brilliant voices and can tackle the intricate choreography with ease. Give them a song every now and again (like Freak Flag) to pick up the energy and prove to the audience that your show does actually contain some talent. The aforementioned dragon should have an incredible voice (Landi Oshinowo), but a paltry moment on stage for the bows. The gingerbread man (Alice Fearn) should also be given a moment in the spotlight to showcase her impressive vocals. Mostly, though, give them plenty of time to rest between scenes of physical exertion - they'll need it.

Step 5 - Hire some celebrities to drive ticket sales

There's not a chance in hell that they'll disappoint the audience, regardless of how miniscule their talent. Ensure that Shrek (Nigel Lindsay) is given a mask that obscures his expressions to the audience and slowly melts under heat and sweat, whilst the actor attempts a Scottish accent. Cast any old black guy as Donkey (Richard Blackwood will do) and expect him to do a flawless Eddie Murphy impression, despite having none of his high-pitched charm or hyperactivity and instead having an appalling American accent, an expressionless face and no energy...whatsoever. Your Princess Fiona should be a glorified popstar (Kimberley Walsh) who strains with her weak, nasal vocal, relies on repetitive hand gestures for "acting" and can't tap dance - then provide her with an intricate tap dancing number. Also hire some children to play the same part and overshadow your celebrity. Heck, you'll need someone to take over in the future. Lastly, Lord Farquhad should be the show's highlight - even if he is the understudy (Ross Dawes).

And there you have it, in five easy steps. Your show may be aimed predominantly at children (though a few adult jokes thrown in won't go amiss), but that's no excuse for not giving them a totally average experience. I mean, they'll grow up soon enough and forget about the whole thing...right?


Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Santigold - Disparate Youth

Following the release of her debut album in 2008, Santigold is finally back with some new material.

Not familiar with her work?  Here's a quick refresher.  The American artist's self-titled debut, including singles L.E.S Artistes and Creator (which you may recognise from the Vo5 advert - if that's your reference point) met with critical success, praising her crossing of genres.  Her work has a diverse range of influences, most notably hip hop, reggae, afrobeat and electro, forming an eclectic and multi-cultural mix.  Her closest contemporary is M.I.A of Superbowl infamy, though her work is harder hitting than Santigold's.  The follow-up album, 'Master Of My Make-Believe' is set for release in spring this year and features Disparate Youth.

This track has a stronger dancefloor vibe than her previous work, the opening synth arpeggios leading into the biggest beat of the year so far.  This fuses with thrashing guitar chords and the catchy "oh ah" chorus vocal hook.  It layers up quickly but then loses direction - it's all on one, slightly repetitive, level.  Yet the production is exciting enough that it doesn't matter.  Santigold isn't the strongest of singers, but her boundary transcending sound ensures her musical voice is heard.


Listen: Disparate Youth is released on 8th April, whilst the album 'Master Of My Make-Believe' is released later in the spring.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Kimbra - Settle Down

Song of the moment Somebody That I Used To Know may be Gotye's baby, but don't forget that "featuring Kimbra" extension.  The Australian-based Kiwi popstar is now bringing her similarly oddball brand of pop across the pond to our shores with the arrival of her 'Settle Down' EP.

Believe it or not, she's been around for a couple of years now on the other side of the world, with her debut album 'Vows' released last summer in both New Zealand and Australia.  She's won awards for both her solo work and the aforementioned single with Gotye, including NZ Critics Choice 2011 and has had considerable success in the charts (thank you Wikipedia).  If you hadn't guessed, she's pretty big over there.

Quirky is definitely in right now and Kimbra's music fits easily within this category.  Like Gotye, her weird-pop is eclectic and difficult to define.  Opening track Settle Down is the most obvious single with its "boom-ba-boom-bah" acapella vocal and hand clap beginning setting the tone for the rhythmically charged verses, the chorus taking a more expansive sound.  Cameo Lover has a disco feel that makes way for a motown inspired chorus.  By contrast the jazzy double bass in Good Intent is matched by Kimbra's deep, husky vocal with a sarcastic air.  The fluttering Limbo, lastly, has a more playful tone.  Despite its sometimes schizophrenic nature, what holds the EP together is a propensity for jazz harmonies, rhythmic layers and Kimbra's impressive vocal ability.  Each track, each change of mood, is paired with a different vocal colour - from a high whispering falsetto, to a low growl.  Like Gotye, this is idiosyncratic music that people will either love or hate.


Listen: 'Settle Down' is available to download now.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Young Guns - Bones

Sometimes music has that profound ability to transport you to another time or place. 'Bones' is one such album, transporting me to my "angry young man" teenage years (as my parents call them) spent listening to Linkin Park, Blink 182, Lost Prophets et al. This is both a blessing and a curse - it plays on the nostalgia of listeners (of a certain age at least), but also proves the band aren't really doing anything novel.

What they are, though, is a tight, solid rock band. Recent single Learn My Lesson showcased this, with its catchy chorus and driving guitars. This continues with title track Bones - you can literally hear hoards of screaming teenagers moshing and chanting its anthemic chorus. As a whole though, the band have mellowed since recording their self-titled debut in 2008. Arguably, they are at their best on the standout ballad You Are Not, with frontman Gustav Wood excelling with his impressive vocal range, soaring passionately into the upper registers. In fact, hearing a rock album with a talented vocalist who doesn't resort to screaming is a fresh change. Album closer Broadfields is another welcome ballad, with a gentler acoustic feel. The band are equally at home thrashing out tracks like Dearly Departed, Towers (On My Way) and Brothers In Arms. Yet for all the densely distorted and layered guitars, melody is at the heart of their sound - both instrumental and vocal. It ensures a pop sensibility amongst the angst. Shorter tracks, especially Interlude, provide further experimentation by incorporating synths and electronic drums for a heavier mix, perhaps hinting at the direction of the band's future work.

It's with the lyrics that Young Guns fall down slightly. Death seems to be a prominent theme, such as in the ironically titled opening track Everything Ends: "I had a conversation with a dying man, he said 'Son, make sure you live while you still can'"; or a line from the equally morbidly titled I Was Born, I Have Lived, I Will Surely Die: "Every day is a chance to change the story, don't run away, take a shot, give it everything you've got". Learn My Lesson was an obvious choice for the lead single with its core message "I will live and learn my lesson here tonight", by extension, being the moral of the album. It's a cliché, but it's befitting of the band's impassioned musical style. Then again, lyrics have hardly been a strong point for emo bands, overwrought emotion being a staple of the genre.

And that is the dichotomy of 'Bones'. It fits neatly into the genre of emo pop-rock and its influences are clear, like the best bits of various other bands spliced together. It may not be the most original music, but it's comforting for the teenager inside to have a warm, angsty hug - everything will be ok.


Gizzle's Choice:
* You Are Not
* Broadfields

Listen: 'Bones' is available now.

Watch: 'Young Guns' are currently touring Europe.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) - Joe Johnston

Captain America is a perfectly perfunctory blockbuster.  A one dimensional good vs evil story, with one dimensional characters and a few explosions.  It's essentially a film about the triumph of the underdog.  Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a weak, scrawny fella determined to fight for the US army in World War II, despite his stature.  When he's inducted into a secret programme he finally gets his chance - injected with chemicals he turns from Mr Skinny to Mr Men's Health a.k.a Captain America, all cleverly foreshadowed in the early stages with tiny directorial touches. 

The film, unlike the Captain, is utterly flawed.  There's a lot of exposition to wade through at the start and the action, when it finally gets going, is far too reliant on CGI - the shield tossing looks fake and "Skinny" Rogers is ridiculous looking.  The predictable script, like the acting, is laughable and where the bad guy is often the most engaging character, Hugo Weaver's red faced villain Schmidt is under-characterised.  Dominic Cooper's Q-like Stark has a wavering accent and Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter goes from feisty officer to disappointingly wet sap.  Then the twist at the end hits like a crowbar - a flimsy segway into the upcoming Avengers film.  What mostly grates though is the whole notion that WWII was won almost single handedly by a man in tights with a funny shield.  It smacks of American arrogance that won't sit well with European audiences.

The key problem is with the Captain himself, who is somewhat lacking in the superhero department.  Inhumanly flawless, he has no real superpower, besides a lot of muscle and American jingoistic bombast.  Infiltrating a Nazi base with a brightly coloured shield is hardly the most subtle of approaches.  The film is essentially based in reality, so the slight fantasy elements and the super technology seem wildly out of place.  It lacks the dark grit of Batman and the twisted nature of his psychotic nemeses, or the cool and extravagant superpowers of the X-Men or Spiderman.  Even compared to the other Avengers, the Captain lacks the witty charm of Iron Man, the frightening dichotomy of the Hulk, or the fantastical mythology of Thor.  Instead, Evans' Captain is a bore.  Good luck standing out in the upcoming Avengers film.


Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Woman In Black (2012) - James Watkins

Unlike your stereotypically blood-soaked Hammer horror films, The Woman In Black is the sort of supernatural tale Shelley or Stoker would be proud of - a classic, Victorian gothic ghost story.  It's the tale of Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe), a young, widowed and vulnerable lawyer.  Sent to a creepy village on the coast of north-east England to investigate the legal papers of a recent widow, he's haunted by more than his deceased wife.

There's only one weapon in this director's arsenal of scares - shock tactics and a good old fashioned BOO!  With little dialogue, the story is told through chilling atmosphere.  Fog rolls over the moors, candles flicker in the dark and porcelain dolls stare blankly through the screen, coupled with an overwhelming silence broken only by eerie sound design and music.  The jump-out-of-your-seat moments are easily predicted and cheap, but prove spine tingling all the same, building to a suitable crescendo.  Many tropes of gothic horror have been included which may seem cliched, but it's well paced and beautifully shot.  Indeed, The Woman In Black marks a refreshing change of pace from the incessant gore-fests that most modern horror films descend into, though it equally lacks any thought-provoking psychological implications.  Instead, it's an adrenaline fuelled thrill ride.

This film may be a step in the right direction for Radcliffe, but the shackles of Potter are not so easily shed.  In one respect he's horribly miscast.  He may technically be old enough to play a widowed father, but there's no hiding that babyface - even with the stubble on his chin and chops around his ears.  There's no depth to his Kipps, characterisation consisting predominantly of a perpetually blank expression.  It's as if he's more scared of the camera than any ghosts.  On the other hand, his casting sort of works.  Radcliffe is totally outclassed by every other actor in the film - he's a man out of his depth, but likewise so is Kipps.  Just like in Potter, Radcliffe succeeds playing himself.

Suspenseful and shocking, The Woman In Black is a simple but well executed haunted house horror film that will leave you in a cold sweat but won't haunt you in your sleep.


Friday, 17 February 2012

Katy Perry - Part Of Me

Perry's songs tend to fall into one of two categories - rock-lite, power pop anthems like Firework or Teenage Dream and the more comical bubblegum tracks like I Kissed A Girl and California Gurls. Part Of Me, her latest single, falls firmly in the former category.

I'll admit I have a bit of a soft spot for The Perry. She may not be the best singer in the world and her music may not be progressive or complex. But you can't deny the catchy allure of her seemingly unending supply of pop hooks. Most of all her music is uplifting and fun, which, coupled with her bubbly persona, surely makes her the perfect popstar.

Part Of Me leads us in a slightly more serious direction. Sure, musically this is all too familiar, with pop-RnB beats and production throbbing beneath jangling guitar chords. But the lyrical connotations are as transparent as glass - a massive "screw you!" to Mr Brand. Mostly, this is just Perry doing what she does best.


Listen: Part Of Me will be included on Perry's upcoming re-release of 'Teenage Dreams' on March 26th.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Figure of 8 feat. Sophie Galpin - No One Cries For Me

No One Cries For Me is the new release from up and coming producer Figure of 8. It's firmly in the late 80s early 90s tradition of dance music, taking the best bits of those familiar old tracks and updating them for the 21st century.

The walking synth bassline pulses throughout, with the mid-tempo rhythm driven by minimal percussion and the customary hand claps. Synth pads whirr in the background, lazy melodies bleed into the sound and an electric guitar solo in the final third provides a suitable crescendo. This is all supplemented by Sophie Galpin's gentle vocal, the added reverb and harmonies giving a sublime, celestial quality. The emo chorus line "my eyes are crying on the inside, but no one cries for me" may be a little off-putting for some, but it fits the laidback, reflective style. If that's not enough, there are already more upbeat remixes being done, like this excellent Cyclist Remix. Lovely stuff.


Listen: No One Cries For Me is available now from iTunes.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Muppets (2012) - James Bobin

If you don't leave the cinema with your face hurting, you can't call yourself human.  Or muppet.

The phenomenon is back with this heartwarming love letter to their furry faces.  It's a sort of film within a film - after years out of the spotlight the muppets must stop an evil oil baron from taking over their studios by (what else?) putting on a show, just as in reality the muppets return to our big screens after a long hiatus.

Nostalgia is at the heart of the film.  The muppets rely on three old fans (Jason Segal, Amy Adams and newcomer to the gang Walter) to bring them all back together: the same muppets we all know and love.  The film's comedy style, from Segal's script, is simplistic and obvious, yet its predictability is half its charm.  It's a new story with familiar characters and catchphrases; innocent humour with a knowing wink.  The songs are hilariously performed and it's clear that Segal and the various cameo appearances have a great love and respect for their childhood furry heroes.  There's even a Pixar short (with an incredibly amusing DJing penguin) to get the action going.  Yes, The Muppets is jammed with morals and messages but this is a children's film after all.

Or is it?  Due to its reliance on nostalgia, it remains to be seen whether the muppets can regain their status at the height of entertainment.  It's out with the new and in with the old, which might not sit well with this generation of youngsters.  For big kids, though, The Muppets is a refreshing change of pace that encapsulates pure unadultered joy for muppets of men and very manly muppets.


Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Emeli Sandé - Our Version of Events

The awards and accolades have already started pouring in for Emeli Sandé and her debut album, 'Our Version of Events', has only just been released. But is it worthy of such praise?

In a word: no. Her career history has followed a similar trajectory to Jessie J or Adele, not least because her first name is in fact Adele. Like Jessie J, she has spent the last few years writing songs for other artists and also appeared on a few - from Chipmunk's Diamond Rings to, recently, Professor Green's Read All About It. And like Adele, the focus of her material is her soulful vocal and songwriting ability.

The album opens with Sandé's debut single Heaven (see video below). It's the most progressive track, the breakbeat drums lifting the strings and mysterious downbeat lyrics from dirge territory. Later, second single Daddy features similarly standout production, whilst recent release Next To Me offers the only upbeat track of the bunch. And the rest? Sandé wallows from ballad to ballad in an increasingly repetitive mire of sorrow.

Individually, there are some beautiful moments: the delicate guitar intro of Mountains, the heartbreaking chorus metaphor of Suitcase, the subtle vocal harmonies of Breaking the Law, the gritty production of My Kind of Love, or the playful feel of Where I Sleep. There is an honesty and a rawness to the lyrics and Sande's indisputably powerful vocal soars and cracks with emotive colour. The trouble is that the songs are too similar for any particular elements to really stand out, all smooth guitar and piano arpeggios. There's no boundary pushing and, like Jessie J's 'Who You Are', it often sounds more like a songwriting portfolio than a complete album - her songs could just as easily be sung by Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Leona Lewis et al. Sandé is a fresh talent but, in totality, there's just not enough variety on this album for the power ballads to retain their power.


Gizzle's Choice:
* My Kind of Love
* Suitcase

Listen: 'Our Version of Events' is available now.

Watch: Sande will be performing on her UK tour in April.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Gotye - Making Mirrors

The outstanding Somebody That I Used To Know has been one of the biggest records of the year so far and it's by far the standout track of this, Gotye's third album.  But how does the rest of the album hold up?

For fans of that song alone, you're in for a surprise - this is not the album of heartbreaking love songs you're expecting.  Rather, this is more in-line with de Backer's previous material - eclectic and experimental. 

Each song is unique, running the gamut of genres from jazz to ska, blues and motown and constructed from live instruments, synths and found samples.  This eclecticism is actually commendable and it's fresh to see an artist given free reign to compose the music they want to rather than an album of identikit tracks all taken from the same mould.  Admittedly the motown feel of I Feel Better and the toe-tapping In Your Light, as positive as these tracks are, feel at odds with the overall moody feel of 'Making Mirrors'.  Yet far from disjointed, the sheer array of music on offer is impressive.  The experimentation meets its peak with State of the Art, a track that sees de Becker semi-rapping using a vocoder that does grate, despite the inventive production.  The blazing guitars and Radiohead feel of Easy Way Out; the urgent drum pattern of Eyes Wide Open; the lurching, blues quality of Smoke and Mirrors; and the dreamy synth strings of Giving Me A Chance with its steel drum melodies - this is a varied and creative album that throws curveballs at every turn.

Sure, nothing quite hits the lyrical heights of Somebody That I Used To Know but likewise, previous album 'Like Drawing Blood' had the incredible Hearts A Mess that stood above the otherwise oddball mix.  Love it or hate it, 'Making Mirrors' follows a similar template, whilst at the same time continuing to forge a sound that defies classification.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Somebody That I Used To Know
* Smoke and Mirrors
* Giving Me A Chance

Listen: 'Making Mirrors' is available now.

Watch: If you're lucky - it seems all his upcoming gigs are sold out for the time being.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Melancholia (2011) - Lars von Trier

After watching Antichrist a couple of years ago, I pressed play on this one with trepidation.  Von Trier is reknowned for his extreme, overtly artistic avant-garde visions and Melancholia is no different.  It's an exploration into the psychosis of depression.  Kirsten Dunst plays Justine whose suffering affects the family around her, played out to the backdrop of an oncoming apocalypse.  Needless to say the title is befitting of the melancholic film.

It begins with a slow motion view of the apocalypse, framed in stillness like a beautifully surreal Dali painting.  As the film begins at the end, it instills a sense of insurmountable dread and hopelessness that permeates the film as a whole.  With no dialogue, the only sound is that of Wagner's Prelude to Tristan und Isolde which recurs periodically throughout the film as an annoyingly repetitive musical motif.  Like the title, the use of Wagner is befitting - von Trier's film is as schmoltzy and overblown as the unending melodies and doomed love of Wagner's score.

Knowing the ending, the film becomes a waiting game for the characters' inevitable doom.  Separated into two acts, the first focuses on Dunst's Justine.  Even on her wedding day, she suffers from episodes.  Despite her father noting "this is the happiest I've seen you", it is all just a facade.  Over the course of the celebration, her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic - she fluctuates between violence and sedate lethargy and is unable to find pleasure in normal activities.  Unlike the stillness of the opening, the remainder of the film is shot with a hand camera, the constant movement suggesting mental claustraphobia.  In the background, the planet 'Melancholia' is set on a collision course for earth.  It's a physical metaphor for Justine's state of mind - like her depression the planet will not just 'fly-by' but is set on an inevitable flight path with catastrophic consequences.  Her psychosis is such that she welcomes death: it is her only escape and she succumbs to it.  The second act focuses on her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and the impact Justine's mental illness has on her family.  With the planet edging ever closer, Claire's anxiety manifests into a frantic fight for survival.  Justine on the other hand is madly calm in this time of desperation, holding the family together.

The central performances from Dunst and Gainsbourg are equally heartwrenching and disturbing.  For Dunst in particular this is a bold and successful change of pace.  Yet the film cannot escape von Trier's own self-involvement.  He is undoubtedly an original, artistic mind and the film's audacious design reflects this.  But, as a sufferer himself of occasional depression, it seems that Melancholia is a sort of catharsis that doesn't translate into enjoyment for the viewer.  It's a technically accomplished film that, for all its oddities, lacks profundity. 


Saturday, 11 February 2012

The Tales of Hoffmann - ENO @ The Coliseum

Offenbach's opera is less a biographical account of ETA Hoffmann, but instead uses his literary work as a conduit to explore Romantic ideology.  It premiered in 1881 after the composer's death and in the thick of the Romantic period.

The libretto has the author as the central protagonist, so of course elements of his personality will trickle into the narrative.  Like in reality, Hoffmann's operatic doppelganger is unlucky in love (Hoffmann died of syphillis in 1822) and struggles with alcoholism.  In fact, the opera is bookended by a prologue and epilogue that see Hoffmann entertaining students with a drinking song and smoking, as if the central three acts are alcohol and drug induced dreams, inverting the ideals of high Romanticism.

Hoffmann was a pioneer of the Romantic movement, in particular with his fantastical and gothic literary work that inspired, amongst others, Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker.  Offenbach's opera takes elements of these stories to weave his own narrative that sees Hoffmann reflecting on his own work.  Guided by his muse (disguised as his childhood friend Nicklausse), Hoffmann tells three bizarre stories inspired by his love for the prima-donna soprano Stella, each of the three female characters of the stories who Hoffmann falls for suggesting different elements of Stella's personality.  The purpose of this is to rekindle Hoffmann's waning artistic inspiration.  As such, he is poised as the tragic Romantic hero who suffers in love for the sakes of his art - as in Tim Hopkins's English translation, the chorus sing in the epilogue "The embers of your heart restore your life to art".  Moreover, his love for each woman is depicted as an impossibility - doomed and hopeless.  This is due to the appearance of three male representations of evil - nemeses who Hoffmann must strive to overcome.

Offenbach offers us three operas for the price of one.  Each of the three acts has a distinct setting and musical style, stemming from the three women.  The first is Olympia who, unbeknownst to Hoffmann, is in actuality a puppet.  Consequently, the Baroque-esque music is the most formally structured and Olympia's bel canto vocal style, with its chirruping trills and rapid scalic runs, suggests her mechanical nature.  The second, Antonia, is a tragic heroine who's strange disease inherited from her mother means if she sings she will die.  Her music is lyrical and the least heavily structured of the three.  The third is Giulietta, a prostitute who steals the souls of men, who's music is dramatic and sensual. 

The settings for these three acts are undefined, allowing the director and designer to unleash their imaginations.  For this ENO production transferred from the Bayerisches Staatsoper in Munich, director Richard Jones and designer Giles Cadle transport us into three weird, surreal fantasty realms - a brightly coloured child's fantasy of toys and puppets; a dark, Shelley-esque gothic world of phantoms and magic; and a clinical yet seedy world dominated by a mysterious mirror (the device used to steal men's souls).  With such distinct ideas, the opera does run the risk of being disjointed.  However, each set stemmed from the realistic opening prologue, exaggerating certain pieces of Hoffmann's study, like the mirror, piano and bed.  There were also suggestions of drug-induced psychedlia - from the surreal pipe on the screen between scene changes, to the eerie lighting that bathed the otherwise dark second act in a green hue.  Continuity is also provided by the cast, using the same actors for mutiple parts.

Offenbach's score, with its varying musical styles, does feel a little derivative.  A clear influence was Mozart, in both Offenbach's natural style and literally in the musical quotations used in the prologue and epilogue.  Indeed, the soprano Stella is (off-stage) performing in a production of Don Giovanni.  However, this Mozartian influence likely derives from Hoffmann himself.  Not only did he write his own version of the Don Juan legend, but he changed his middle name to Amadeus in honour of the composer.  As a whole, though, the score is a delight with its colourful and magical orchestration.  Hidden dramatic complexities prove there is more to this music than immediately apparent.

For all its weird and wonderful style, it was the cast who truly brought the opera to life.  Central was Barry Banks's Hoffmann.  Offenbach cast this role as a lyric-tenor, linking to the Italian Romantic tradition.  It's a difficult sing, but Banks's passionate voice rang true over the orchestra.  Christine Rice sang the muse/Nicklausse with boyish clarity, whilst Simon Butteriss's deep rumbling bass was well suited to the four nemeses.  The star attraction though was American soprano Georgia Jarman, who rose to the challenge of all four contrasting women with immense vocal dexterity.  Her tone was warm and rich - impressively soft and controlled in Olympia's puppet aria to compliment the stilted movements of her automaton, yet beautifuly emotive in the later dramatic moments. 

Offenbach's opera portrays the triumph of art and ENO's opera was similarly an artistic success.  Whilst parts of the design could have been pushed to further extremes, this flight of fancy was weirdly depicted and wonderfully sung.


Watch:  ENO's The Tales of Hoffmann runs for nine performances from the 10th February to the 10th of March.

Friday, 10 February 2012

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum - LAMDA @ Greenwich Theatre

Forum - a funny choice for a straight acting course. Of course it's good to push people outside their comfort zones (amongst other reasons), but it does seem odd to showcase the secondary element of these actors' abilities. Sondheim, too, is notoriously wordy and difficult to sing. Forum, though, is the panto of Sondheim shows and, through excellent characterisation and comic timing, the actors coped very well with the challenges laid out before them.

Forum is inspired by ancient Roman farce and this production was suitably full of socks, sandals and sex. The brilliantly realised set was a fusion of Roman architecture and Las Vegas crass commercialism, filled with tiny details on posters and neon signs. This permeated the costumes too - a modern take on Roman fashion combining robes with bright colours, luminous wigs and even dominatrix gear.

Shevelove and Gelbart's book is a hilarious farce, combining mistaken identities, social satire and a multitude of puns, with various characters including slaves, courtesans and (hysterically funny) eunuchs. This is presented in a theatrical and camp vaudeville style, led by the exceptional Dave Perry as Pseudolus whose stage presence and hyper-energy (reminiscent of Jim Carrey) provided the glue to hold the show together. Though it got off to a slow start (understandably, given this was the cast's first performance), the arrival of the courtesans and their sexy dance solos lifted the energy, whilst showstopper Everybody Ought To Have A Maid was performed with zesty animation to raise the comedy to new levels. The intricate choreography of Pretty Little Picture was also well implemented. Through a mix of grotesque characterisation and jokes delivered with deadpan sincerity, the plot thickened considerably to culminate in a hilarious unravelling. The cast as a whole offered solid performances, from Laurie Jamieson's Elvis-inspired Miles Gloriosus to Will Richards's "always calm" cross-dressing Hysterium. The three Proteans Calum Finlay, Teddy Nicholas and Alex Vlahov also deserve praise for their sheer hard work playing a mix of slaves, soldiers and eunuchs.

It's just a shame, then, that the singing didn't quite live up to the acting. Certain voices stood out above others in solos, whilst as an ensemble the sound was fine. Then again, as noted, singing clearly is not the strength of these performers and, whilst music is (arguably) the most important part of any musical, in this case it should not be dwelt upon. The band, on the other hand, were tight and the sound was well balanced between the singers and musicians.

Challenges overcome, this production of Forum was a success through pure unequivocal hilarity.


Watch: Forum is performed from the 8th-15th of February at the Greenwich Theatre.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

NME Awards Show 2012: Charli XCX @ The Lexington, London

Following the release last year of singles Stay Away and Nuclear Seasons, Charli XCX is busy spreading word of her goth-pop music in preparation for an album later this year.  And at just 19, this rising star has much to offer.

This night at the Lexington started with a set from Mz Bratt, who's far from the childish figure her name may suggest.  You may recognise her from her appearance in the Children In Need single Teardrop.  She bounded onto the stage in a blaze of sass and attitude to deliver some floor-filling tracks to a less than filled floor.  It was a shame as she deserves a bigger audience to patter with, though the banter between her and her hype guy was full of energy.  Her mix of rave and garage music, like single Tear It All Downover which she rapped and sang with swagger, certainly got the minimal crowd going but is better suited to a larger, packed club venue.

Next up was synth-pop duo Icona Pop, from (where else?) Sweden.  Though the set began with some moody posturing, the rhythmic, industrial production couldn't fail to get the crowd moving.  The frantic energy and buzzing synths is like a mix of Niki & The Dove and Passion Pit, firmly living up to their pop name.  The duo consist of Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo, who's unison vocals were strong but added harmonies would offer greater depth.  At only three songs, all taken from current EP 'Nights Like This', the set was far too short, so fingers crossed there will be more to come from this exciting duo in the near future.

The support acts at first glance may not seem a suitable match for Charli XCX.  Yet she combines the youthful, urban spunk of Mz Bratt with the electric production of Icona Pop into a mix that crosses boundaries.  In fact, having her mic draped in black tinsel provides a perfect metaphor for her goth pop - harsh and metallic, yet polished to a glittering pop sheen.

She arrived on set dressed in black, emblazoned in a blue glow looking suitably new-age witch.  Despite lacking any stage banter, her stage persona was a bundle of energy that stood out from the frenzy of neon strobes around her.  She snarled and pouted her way through each of the small handful of songs performed with youthful attack and a touch of punk arrogance, like Avril Lavigne's darker, goth sister.  Vocally the performance was powerful yet ethereal and, although the set was a little one-dimensional, the two radio-friendly singles particularly stood out.  Her cover of Athlete's Wires was also a nice change of pace.  Her greatest asset however is her ability to cross boundaries.  Though pop at heart, her music fuses elements of rave, drum and bass beats and goth metal, like a mix of every high school stereotype. It's a mix that has appeal for teenagers and critics alike, though for all her on-stage bravado she remains a young girl at heart.

Combined, the three acts were a diverse mix that proved girl power is far from over.  Female dominance of the charts is set to continue - look out for these three edging closer to the limelight over the following months.


Listen: Charli XCX's singles Stay Away and Nuclear Seasons are available now to download.  Similarly, Mz Bratt has various singles, including Tear It All Down, available, as is Icona Pop's EP 'Nights Like This'.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Grimes - Genesis

Grimes, a.k.a Canadian Claire Boucher, has stated in interviews she aspires to the idea of the producer-singer.  This certainly comes across in her music, equally at ease when singing and knob-twiddling.

But there's another dichotomy at play here - that between the ethereal and up-tempo pop.  You could almost describe this as 'Enya in the club'.  Boucher's heavily reverbed, girlish falsetto echoes like an incantation above a trance synth-bass riff.  The percussive beats are central, set off against the playful piano arpeggios and the pentatonic synth flute melodies offering an oriental feel.  There's an abstract quality to this akin to Bjork, but it's very much in the vein of pop.  Boucher supported Lykke Li last year in North America, which comes as no surprise.

Genesis is a more approachable effort than her previous material - EP 'Geidi Primes' and LP 'Halfaxa'.  Perhaps, now that she's signed to record label 4AD, this track marks the start of a new, pop-focused beginning.  After topping NME's 'Most Exciting New Bands of 2012', there's high expectations for the new album 'Visions'.  If Genesis is any indication, it's worth bumping it up your priority list.


Listen: Genesis is available to download for free on Grimes's website.  'Visions' is released on February 21st.

Watch: Grimes will be touring the UK in May.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Les Liaisons Dangereuses @ Guildhall School of Music & Drama

"A girl of 15 was a coffer whose lock had to be forced, while a woman of 30 was venison, well ripe and good to put on a spit.  A 40 year-old was a great bastion where the cannon had made more than a breach.  And at 50 - an old lantern in which one only places a wick with regret."

Christopher Hampton's play, like Stephen Frears's infamous film Dangerous Liaisons starring John Malkovich and Glenn Close, is adapted from the French epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos.  Set within the eighteenth century French aristocracy, it's a narrative that focuses firmly on sex, where the boundaries between love and lust are blurred.  Love is viewed as an incurable sickness that results only in death, a manipulative device used as "a lubricant to nature".  The plot plays out as a game of one-upmanship between Vicomte de Valmont and La Marquise de Merteuil as they manipulate the characters around them for their own personal entertainment.  Yet bubbling beneath the surface are their true feelings, threatening to emerge.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses is an incredibly wordy (and long) play, which the Guildhall students coped well with, even if some of the lines were rushed.  Though written in a twentieth century idiom, the script contains restrained and subtle sexual innuendo appropriate for the context and, as such, the scenes with the two protagonists play out like a battle of wordplay.  However, for a play about sex, it lacked some chemistry and bite between the main players.  For all the play's ostentatious, aristocratic context, the drama itself is very intimate and private (literally) and this production did lack some of the desired intensity, though the individual characteristics were present and well-rounded owing to research into the original novel.  The majority of the comedic lines were played to the audience and this overtly theatrical approach unfortunately tended to force laughter.  Individually, Edwin Thomas offered a fine performance as Valmont, at times reminiscent of a young Kenneth Branagh, and Beatrice Walker was suitably vindictive as Merteuil.

Nicky Bunch's set design, though minimalist, was bold and provided a clear sense of the lavish surroundings without encroaching on the intimacy of the drama.  The set did lack clearly defined domestic spaces which tended to confuse the various exits and entrances to the stage.  It did, however, allow for an openness and fluidity, giving the impression that the influence of the key players was inescapable.  The bedroom was hidden from view beneath the stage so that, for all the play's sexual front, sex itself was swept aside.  The use of a ceiling mirror for these scenes was a particularly narcissistic touch.

Additionally, an onstage cellist (criminally uncredited in the programme) provided musical excerpts for the scene changes and was used diegetically during some scenes.  This created a suitable mood and atmosphere to set each scene, although the excerpts themselves were from a wide period of history not always contemporary to the setting.  They were still well played and great to see Guildhall embracing both sides of its artistic curriculum.

Despite its flaws, this was a solid production of a difficult play performed by a fine cast of young actors.


Watch: There are still performances left of Les Liaisons Dangereuses from the 7th - 9th February at the Silk Street Theatre.

Monday, 6 February 2012

14th - Take Me There

Following their debut EP 'Hide Yourself' released late last year, 14th, a.k.a Tracey Duodu and Tom Barber, are ready to release follow up single Take Me There.

It fits neatly alongside their previous material, Duodu's soulful vocal fusing with Barber's propensity for 90s garage production.  However, the EP felt fresh and creative - the chilling opening to Hide Yourself slowly making way for the garage beats; the almost James Blake-esque ballad of Lights Off; the dubstep remix of earlier track Millionaire.  By contrast, Take Me There sounds a little derivative of the duo's influences, as if ripped from twelve years ago.  The organ synth especially is straight out of Livin' Joy's Dreamer, but it is mixed with more contemporary production.  Perhaps this will light the way for a resurgence of garage music?  In the meantime, this is a great tune and a prime candidate for multiple club remixes.


Listen: The 'Hide Yourself' EP is available now.  Take Me There is released on 13th February.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Alexandra Burke - Elephant

Erm, excuse me. Who is this robot and what have you done with Alexandra Burke?

It's a shame really. She showed such promise on the X Factor, with probably the strongest voice the competition has yet seen and a stunning performance alongside Beyonce.  Four years later and Elephant proves that Burke is still struggling to make her mark on the music industry.  Whilst she started her career with some decent, if uninspired, RnB pop, she's now reduced to this  sub-par dance pap.

Elephant is produced by Erick Morillo, well known for his Ibiza trance hits but he brings little to the table here besides a typical four-to-the-floor beat, some pounding synths and a customary dubstep breakdown.  I mean really, dubstep is less a trend and more a virus contaminating the minds of pop-producers the world over.  Give it a rest.

What's most criminal though is Burke's vocoded and over-produced vocal.  The girl can sing, yet instead we're subjected to a cyborg clone devoid of personality.  Elephant is catchy enough, but it's clear Burke is clinging on to her career by her fingernails, oblivion mere inches away. 

Never mind the elephant, the music industry is in the room and it's laughing at you.


Listen: Elephant is officially released on March 11th.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Madonna - Give Me All Your Luvin' (feat. M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj)

You'd think at 53 Madonna could at least learn to spell.  "L-U-V" does not spell 'love'.

If Give Me All Your Luvin' is indicative of upcoming album 'MDNA' (not to be confused with MDMA...), it's clear she's attempting to fuse the old and the new.  Recruited on board is William Orbit, producer of her critically acclaimed 'Ray of Light' album, with some guest appearances from recent hip-hop stars M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj.  But is it a mix that works?

On the one hand, Give Me All Your Luvin' is a great pop track, reminiscent of her mid '90s glory days.  The production bares similarities to Ray of Light and the Austin Powers record Beautiful StrangerIt's a catchy and flirtatious piece of pop which, like the Super Bowl inspired video, is simply a bit of fun, Madge looking fantastic for her age.

But on the other hand, is this record the hallmark of an artist struggling to retain her youth?  Are those high-cut skimpy outfits really suitable for a 53 year old mother, writhing suggestively and prancing around like a six year old at a beauty pageant?  The inclusion of M.I.A and Nicki Minaj is a blatent attempt to attract a younger audience, but it's unnecessary - Madonna is a big enough star to go it totally alone.  Besides, their middle eight raps rush by so fast, blink and you'll miss them.  The dubstep breakdown meanwhile, far from updating Madonna's sound, merely highlights her copycat attempts to keep up with current trends rather than pioneering a new sound.

Madonna has always excelled at her musical pursuits over her film and acting career and, despite its flaws, Give Me All Your Luvin' does hint at a return to form.  'MDNA' is certainly an interesting proposition.


Listen: 'MDNA' is released on 26th March.

Watch: Madonna will be debuting Give Me All Your Lovin' during tomorrow's Super Bowl.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Coriolanus (2012) - Ralph Fiennes

Coriolanus may not be one of Shakespeare's best known plays, but its political themes transcend its seventeenth century origins.  Fiennes proves this in his directorial film debut, by setting the play in a fictional "Place Calling Itself Rome" filmed in Serbia.  

Rome is transformed into a modern wasteland reminiscent of the mid-90s Yugoslavian war.  Graffiti covers the crumbling walls, gunfire echoes down war-torn streets and the Roman phalanx is transformed into police riot shield walls.  The parallels to recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the London riots are all clear, heightening the cultural relevance of the play to today's society in a display of bloody realism. 

Fiennes's choice of cinematic techniques enhances this sense of realism.  The film is shot predominantly with a handheld camera by The Hurt Locker's cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, to add a gritty, documentary feel.  The battle scenes in particular have a visceral quality to match the likes of Call of Duty.  Most prominently though is the use of news bulletins, used to frame the various acts of the film.  The very opening is told as a news story, the angry plebeians revolting against the patricians led by Caius Martius (Fiennes), a man who shows as much mercy as "there is milk in a male tiger".  Even news reader Jon Snow makes a (jarring) appearance reading Shakespeare's verse as a report.  This contemporary twist gives the film added dramatic weight and a frightening sense of authenticity.

Second to its political themes is the importance of language.  For all his military bravado, Martius is unable to win over the public and is manipulated by quick-witted politicians and, most of all (in an Oedipal sense), his domineering mother.  The script, however, has little room for poetry, though this ultimately works in the film's favour.  Not once does Shakespeare's language seem out of place, but correlates to the film's realism.  There's still plenty of room for important monologues, delivered powerfully by Fiennes.  Indeed the cast as a whole, including Gerard Butler, Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave, offer excellent performances that are brutally believable.

Fiennes's cinematic adaptation is at once intelligently produced and a thrilling watch, transferring the intimacy of Shakespeare's play on to the big screen whilst retaining, at its core, a predilection for quality acting.