Saturday, 31 March 2012

My Week With Marilyn (2011) - Simon Curtis

Let's start with the good.  Michelle Williams's depiction of Marilyn Monroe is superb.  Throughout the film, she offers us a look behind the iconic mask - what we find is a fragile, beguiling beauty; a woman irresistable to men yet simply seeking love and a normal life.  The price of fame?  A glamorous facade, beneath which lies a woman desperately unhappy.

But a week with Marilyn?  It feels more like an eternity. 

Based on a true story, Eddie Redmayne plays Colin Clark, a young man seeking work in the British film industry.  Eventually, he winds up working for Lawrence Olivier's production company on a film with Monroe.  As she struggles to impress in front of the camera, Clark becomes her confidante, the only man on set she can trust.  But his love for her is doomed and a broken heart is the only conclusion.

The narrative holds a multitude of collisions - Hollywood and Pinewood Studios at the heart of the British film industry; acting royalty from across the Atlantic; Stanislavski and method techniques.  At its core, though, My Week With Marilyn is a simple coming of age yarn as Clark falls in and out of love with Marilyn - "you needed your heart breaking" claims Emma Watson's costume assistant Lucy.  Yet it's a story that holds little dramatic impetus.  We are meant to be as stunned by Marilyn as the characters on screen, but beauty is not enough - Curtis's film offers little in the way of comment on the price of fame.  Further, Marilyn's drug abuse could have been a topical focus in light of recent celebrity deaths (notably Whitney Houston, though of course after the release of this film), but the issue and opportunity for poignancy is merely brushed aside.  These darker elements would have made a much more complex and intriguing film, but are largely ignored in favour of boredom.  Olivier claims in the film that acting is about finding the truth - here, Curtis has stumbled over his own screenplay.

Kenneth Branagh is in fine form as Olivier, proving his worth as a Shakespearean actor.  Redmayne, though, feels totally lost amongst the bigger names on the cast list.  Judi Dench meanwhile, despite minimal screen time, is thoroughly endearing as Dame Sybil Thorndike, even if (I suspect) the character has a lot in common with herself.  However, fine performances alone cannot make a film.  It is beautifully shot, indulging the beauty of both Marilyn and the English countryside.  Yet, like Marilyn herself, there is little substance beneath the pretty face.


Friday, 30 March 2012

The Alchemist @ The White Bear Theatre

The premise behind Let Them Call It Mischief, a new production company set up in 2011, is to revive lesser-known and unusual works of theatre, specifically about London, and to perform them in authentic venues in the capital.  The Alchemist is the company's first production and proved a suitably unusual piece to produce.  Not only was Ben Jonson's play first performed in 1610 at The Theatre, located in Blackfriars not far from The White Bear pub, but nowadays the White Bear Theatre focuses on revivals of lost classics.  Company and theatre in alignment, the production was a comedic success.

The Alchemist is Jonson's most enduring dramatic work.  A contemporary of Shakespeare, he is well known for his satirical comedies and this is no exception.  When gentleman Lovewit (Robert Rowe) is forced to flee his London home for fear of the plague, his butler Face (Danny Wainwright) and partner in crime Subtle (Ed Cartwright) open house to lure in a variety of misfits, with the help of prostitute Dol (Stephanie Hampton).  Each of their victims seeks fantastical concoctions, from the philosopher's stone, to elixirs for eternal life and sexual conquests, in exchange for money.  This set-up allows Jonson, through our two anti-heroes, to mock and satirise the wealthy fools, each representative of different aspects of the human condition, with hilarious consequences.

This production (directed by Danny Wainwright, who bravely and commendably took on the role of Face at short notice) was set in the later Victorian period, though the mismatch of costumes had a slightly confused sense of period.  The set consisted solely of a screen containing a multitude of compartments and doors that were cleverly utilised in comedic ways from scene to scene.  The play is long, though, and the first half in particular felt a little repetitive, the minimal set not allowing for dramatic scene changes.  With some smart editing, a more concise production could have been delivered along with the streamlined set.  The second half, with its unraveling denouement, provided a quick succession of laughs that kept the drama moving at a considerable pace.  The Benny Hill-esque music, though out of sync with the setting, added to the general hilarity.

The acting was the highlight of this production though, the young cast coping well with Jonson's wordy yet witty script.  Stephanie Hampton's Dol immediately brought the production to life from the opening scene, her flirtatious mannerisms belying her character's manipulative ways.  Danny Wainwright's Face, with a variety of stuck-on facial hair accessories to represent (literally) different faces, had some amusing moments and ad-libs that were balanced well by Ed Cartwright's mystical Subtle.  James McGregor meanwhile, with great stage presence, was an imposing figure as the skeptic Surly, later returning with hysterical consequences as a Spanish Don.  Andrew Venning (Mammon) and Phil Featherstone (Drugger) were wonderfully eccentric, if a little overly exaggerated.  But this can be forgiven, the grotesque caricatures on display providing a colourful bunch of fools.

Let Them Call It Mischief have struck gold with a talented ensemble and offbeat choice of play.  Their next project will undoubtedly be an exciting one, whatever piece of unusual drama they choose to produce.


Watch: The Alchemist is performed from the 27th March to the 14th April at the White Bear Theatre, Kennington.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Hunger Games (2012) - Gary Ross

Picture the scene - dragged from your poor, wasteland home and thrown into a diversely landscaped arena with twenty-three other teenagers, you're forced to murder each other live on television to save your life, all for the sporting entertainment of the rich bastards of the Capitol.  What exactly is going through your mind?

It's a question that neither Collins's novel nor Ross's film begins to answer.  But this being a story aimed at young teenagers, it doesn't explore the intense psychological trauma this sort of event may ignite.  In this respect, Collins is tied to the limitations of a teenage novel, a slave to her audience.  However, in both novel and cinematic form, The Hunger Games is a riveting fantasy saga.

It's the latest set of teenage novels to be adapted for the cinemaCollins's work may not be the most original of concepts (though it was conceived without any prior knowledge of the Japanese sci-fi Battle Royale), or the most beautifully written.  But her simple, direct writing style allows the gripping narrative to become the full focus.  It's an addictive read and this film adaptation is likewise addictive viewing.  Following the novel, the story is set in Panem - a dystopian, post-apocalyptic version of North America controlled by a cruel, totalitarian government.  The land is divided into twelve isolated districts filled with poor industrial workers and at its centre lies the Capitol, a place for the rich, greedy and ostentatious.  Each year the Hunger Games take place as a stark reminder to the people of the war years before that tore the country apart and put the poor in their place.  Our protagonist is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a teenager from District Twelve who volunteers as a tribute to take part in place of her younger sister.  Slowly she realises that the gladiatorial games are not just about fighting spirit but about popularity and manipulation.  Most importantly, they're an opportunity to begin an uprising that could overthrow the government for good.

It's a story that can be interpreted in different ways - as an attack on dictatorship, on class divides, on celebrity culture and reality television.  Really, the subtext is pretty shallow but whilst adults will see a missed opportunity, younger viewers will be sucked into Collins's fantastical realm - particularly the futuristic elements of the Capitol, like a hyperbolic version of our own society.  The film stays faithful to the novel, carrying its compelling narrative, melodramatic love triangle (that is still miles more subtle than Twilight's) and lack of a deeper, darker subtext.

The Hunger Games is a long but well-paced film, with lots to pack in to its exposition.  Even then, many story arcs have been minimised, thus subsequently losing impact.  Once the games begin, though, the film becomes a non-stop action thrill ride.  Much has been made of the brutal violence and although some moments are subtly played, the film can still shock.  Undoubtedly, this is a visceral interpretation of the novel's events.

Fans will appreciate the detail that has gone into the conception of Panem, garishly coloured, yet frightening and imposing.  To mimic the novel's first person narrative, the film cleverly uses sight and sound to put us in the position of Katniss, though the frequent use of hand-camera does become dizzying.  Additions such as the game commentators give us an extra insight into occurences behind the scenes, but further use of this would have been welcome for fans and newcomers alike, as the film generally doesn't expand on the novel with any significance.  James Newton Howard's score, part orchestral, part electronica, part Americana, lends a sense of nostalgia, shifting from wonder to intimate emotion.

It's so often difficult for characterisation to live up to the expectations of fans, but The Hunger Games is a success.  What the script lacks in personal detail, Lawrence makes up for with stern resolve in her portrayal of Katniss, though she's equally comfortable when emotional cracks begin to show.  No other actress could conceivably play the part.  Other characters are given far less screen time, though their depictions are suitably varied and colourful - from Liam Hemsworth's Gale, to Woody Harrelson's Haymitch, Lenny Kravtiz's Cinna and Elizabeth Banks's Effie.  What's missing are the intricate relationships, but the film could never replicate what the novel offers without serious cuts to the plot.

And ultimately, the exciting, involving and intense story is The Hunger Games' biggest asset, which Ross's film successfully replicates on the big screen.  It may add little to the mythology of the book but this is a solid, if safe, adaptation - a cinematic Easter treat that's easy to totally absorb yourself in and lasts far longer than a creme egg.


Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Haim - Forever EP

A group of three sisters?
A fusion of folk-rock and RnB?

Still with me?  Good - you won't regret it.

Haim have recently come to the fore, in particular following performances at the SXSW festival in Texas.  They're three sisters - Danielle Haim, Alana Haim and Este Haim (with drumming support from Dash Hutton) - who grew up in LA listening to the folk-rock of their parents' generation: Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones and traditional Americana music.  The family formed a band named Rockinhaim that focused mainly on covers.  In rebellion, the sisters began listening to 90s RnB that slowly permeated their sound.  Now minus mummy and daddy and dropping the 'rock' from their name, the sisters' sound has become a fusion of the two musical styles - sort of En Vogue meets Stevie Nicks.

The whole style shouldn't really work, but it's a seamless combination that's totally natural, as evident on their debut three-track EP 'Forever'.  Opening track Better Off, begins with acapella harmonies akin to an RnB girl band before a thumping hip-hop beat enters - "You fucked me up, what am I to do now?".  Slowly, the guitars emerge for a distinctly Americana flavour.  Forever is more of a poppy effort, with latin-esque rhythms, hand claps and rumbling synth bass juxtaposed with lightly distorted guitars and the girls' folky harmonies.  The beat of final track Go Slow is almost dub-step, a slow-jam ballad that combines an RnB feel with pure, girlish vocals and reverbed guitars with beautiful effect.

Haim are taking all the best bits of girl power (think Alanis Morissette or PJ Harvey meets Destiny's Child, En Vogue or Kelis) and creating something that's feisty yet girlish, rich and delicately comprised yet packing a powerful punch.  An exciting talent, these girls are wholeheartedly worth keeping an eye on.


Listen: 'Forever' is available now for free on the girls' website.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Mark Ronson feat. Katy B - Anywhere In The World

The clocks have gone forward, the sun is out and summer is on its way.  In London that can mean only one thing: the Olympics.

As for most sporting events these days, sponsors Coca Cola have commissioned an official song for the games.  Their choice?  Mark Ronson, who in turn has chosen Katy B to feature on vocals.  At least the song is more exciting than their dry interviews.

Cleverly, Ronson has travelled the globe recording the sounds of athletes - be it breathing, running, punching, shooting arrows or grunting.  It's these sounds that create the unique beat and provide a heavily percussive element.  Atop this are grating synths and the well-recognised Coke melody from their adverts.  It's a catchy and commercial mix, easily likeable.  Best of all, the song will be accompanied by a 'Move To The Beat' Facebook app that will allows users to create their own version of the track.  Still, Katy B's involvement is minimal, providing yet another bland vocal and a distinct lack of personality.

Expect this to receive huge airplay over the coming months - let's just hope it doesn't grate as much as the games themselves.


Listen: Anywhere In The World will be released in May, with the accompanying app 'Move To The Beat' around the same time.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Madonna - MDNA

"I'm gonna be ok, I don't care what the people say", Madonna sings on I Don't Give A, a track at the centre of her latest album 'MDNA'.  As such a huge global star, you can almost forgive this statement.  But if the poor sales of latest single Give Me All Your Luvin' are anything to go by, "the people" may no longer be so enamoured with the old queen of pop.

And that's the crux with Madonna.  On the one hand, she's an artist with admirable longevity, constantly reinventing herself for future generations.  On the other hand, she's an artist constantly striving to stay relevant.  Her music is no longer innovative but lagging behind the rest of the pack.  The old diva has been pushed off her queen of pop pedestal by younger, sexier models, leaving her straining to get our attention like a petulant child.

The result is 'MDNA', an album that smacks of try-hard.  The lyrics are imbued with shock tactics, with constant references to drugs and sex.  Even the title itself is a not so subtle reference.  Take second track Gang Bang for instance - at 5'26 it's unnecessarily long, largely due to Madge overly repeating 'drive bitch... die bitch'.  She doesn't quite go the whole hog though, as the title of I Don't Give A suggests.  Comparing bonus track B-Day Song with Rihanna's Birthday Cake - whilst Ri Ri is off doing God knows what, Madge is at home decorating cakes and presents like Kirstie Allsop, licking frosting and enjoying a bit of light spanking.  These days, shocking lyrics just aren't that shocking.

That leaves the production to grab the listener and, working with old collaborator William Orbit, 'MDNA' mixes elements from her previous albums but predominantly 'Confessions On A Dancefloor' and 'Hard Candy'.  Opener Girl Gone Wild begins with a plea to God in an obvious link to Like A Prayer, whilst the song's disco production harks back to Get Together but with a disappointing "h-ey-ey" chorus.  In fact, the weak choruses spread through the majority of the album, hitting a particular low with Superstar which annoyingly repeats "Oh la la you're my superstar" amongst appaling verse lines such as "You're Abe Lincoln 'cause you fight for what's right".  Cliched lyrics continue with Masterpiece's opening gambit "If you were the Mona Lisa, you'd be hanging in the Louvre" (isn't it already?!).  I'm A Sinner meanwhile is simply a poor man's Beautiful Stranger and the string stabs of Love Spent bare a striking resemblence to Die Another Day.  Even bonus track I Fucked Up includes a brief 'je suis desolé' like on Sorry.  And can someone please tell Madge that dubstep middle-eights are really unnecessary?  Despite Orbit being onboard, this lacks the progressive quality of 'Ray Of Light', arguably Madonna's best work.

Are there any positives?  The disco Girl Gone Wild is certainly an obvious single choice, Turn Up The Radio's punchy beats are infectious and there's something endearing about Madonna attempting to semi-rap on I Don't Give A amongst grating synth guitars and pounding kick drums.  The real highlight though is Falling Free, ending the main album with a soft ballad.  Initially it's hidden amongst the up-tempo disco tracks, but ultimately provides 'MDNA's most arresting moment.  It's here that Madonna offers the most honest vocal delivery, accompanied simply by piano, string lines and subtly swirling electronica in typically Orbit fashion.

"There's only one queen and that's Madonna, bitch", claims Nicki Minaj on I Don't Give A, the main vocal collaborator on 'MDNA' roped in for a contrived sense of cool.  But I think many people will beg to differ.  Je suis desolé Madonna, but your latest work is mostly BLLCKS.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Girl Gone Wild

* I Don't Give A
* Falling Free

Listen: 'MDNA' is available now.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Poliça - Lay Your Cards Out

With commendations from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver ("They're the best band I've ever heard") and Jay-Z, Poliça certainly have high expectations to aim for.  The band, originally from Minneapolis, was set up by producer and collaborator Ryan Olson and vocalist Channy Leaneagh and in only a year have garnered all the right sort of attention.

The musical style of Poliça seems an odd fit for Leaneagh, originally lead vocalist in folk-rock band Roma di Luna, whose now auto-tuned vocals are the main focus of the band's work.  For Olson this is very much a continuation of his previous neo-soul project Gayngs and their album 'Relayted'.  Lay Your Cards Out is the first single from upcoming album 'Give You The Ghost' (pictured), its darkly evocative style typical of their work at large.

Poliça's sound may stem from RnB, but with elements of electro and trip-hop the band have created a sound that is all their own.  Part avant-garde RnB, part slow-motion techno, it's like a fusion of The Weeknd's expansive, noirish layered production with School of Seven Bell's dreamy, ghostly electro.  That the band has two drummers comes as no surprise considering the heavily percussive sound, which reaches a climactic peak in the track's final third.  Amongst the swirls of layered synths and melodic basslines is Leaneagh's vocal, so heavily processed it's treated as another instrument in the mix and takes on an otherworldly character.  The effect is mesmeric.

Leaneagh embarked on this musical endeavour after splitting from her husband and fellow Roma di Luna member Alexei Casselle - "I was looking for an intense release and a creative release to get away and escape to a different reality".  And through music like Lay Your Cards Out, we too are able to escape with her.


Listen: Lay Your Cards Out is released on 26th March in anticipation of their upcoming album 'Give You The Ghost' released on 23rd April.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Usher - Climax

There's been a growing trend of late towards a more avant-garde form of RnB.  It's arguably a movement in retaliation to the dance-focused RnB of the last few years, with the likes of Frank Ocean and The Weeknd at the forefront.

Usher, ever the entrepreneur, has jumped aboard.  Following the dancefloor tracks OMG and Without You (amongst others), he's now changed direction towards this new style.  It's a move that should appease his fans, striking a balance between his early RnB and more recent dance material, whilst still progressing his sound.

Climax is the result: a slow-jam with expansive production that's all layered synth pads, yearning falsetto vocals and steadily grooving percussive beats.  It's undoubtedly a step in the right direction and his best track in years.  Yet its title proves ironic.  For all the track's rise and fall, the chorus is an anticlimax that doesn't live up to the production overall.  Each time it builds, it leaves us wanting.  But maybe that's Usher's intention, paving the way for an upcoming album of similarly progressive, sexy music.


Listen: Climax is released on April 15th.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Sway ft. Kelsey - Level Up

Level Up is the latest release from UK hip-hop artist Sway.  Signed to Akon's Konvict Musik label, he's been doing the rounds as both an artist and producer on the underground scene for a while, but after last year's Still Speeding (featuring a sample of Ride On Time), Level Up marks his true emergence into the mainstream.

And it's a fitting track.  As is becoming standard for hip-hop artists, it's another track about 'making it' and reaching stardom.  This may seem unoriginal, but the 'level up' idea is a clever pop culture, gaming reference that continues throughout - even Alan Sugar gets a mention.  The production by BBC Sound of nominee Flux Pavilion packs a considerable punch with its pounding, vivacious beat.

It all culminates in a brilliant chorus featuring vocals from London singer-songwriter Kelsey.  With its killer  melodic hook, Level Up is perfect for the radio yet equally appealing to hip-hop fans.  At just over three minutes, though, it's far too short - another repeat of the chorus wouldn't go amiss.

It may not be the most original of tracks, but this is a catchy breakthrough that deserves to see chart success and proves that Sway's career is far from Game Over.


Listen: Level Up is released on the 8th April.  Much of Sway's past material is already available on Spotify and iTunes, including previous single Still Speeding.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Miike Snow - Happy To You

Bavarian #1 (Say You Will) is an absolute gem at the heart of 'Happy To You'.  It centres on an irresistible melodic hook, its production combining frosty synths with quivering orchestral strings and electric guitar, marching snare drum providing the rhythmic spine.  And it's structured beautifully, just on the right side of repetitive for the hook to stick, the production constantly shifting to mix things up.  Above it all is the icy cool falsetto vocal of band member Andrew Wyatt, yearning "Say you will".  It's masterful.

But the magic doesn't last.  'Happy To You' is the sophomore album from Swedish indie-pop band Miike Snow, consisting of the producing team Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg (plus vocals from Wyatt) responsible for writing pop treasures like Britney's Toxic.  But like their self-titled debut, this album suffers from an emotional detachment that suggests the band excels at songwriting for others over performing their own material.

Their sound is predominantly electro, but flecks of orchestral instruments add embellishment - the sustained brass and pizzicato strings of Devil's Work and baritone saxophone on Pretender in particular.  These two tracks also stand out for their balance of pop hooks and indie production style.  It's clear the band have a brilliant grasp of musicality, equally at ease writing infectious melodies and cleverly combining interesting instrumentation.  As such, a track like Pretender is both radio friendly and welcome in indie circles, plus its electro basis is suitable for the clubs.  Paddling Out takes things further into disco territory, as evident by the numerous remixes.

Unfortunately, the remains of 'Happy To You' doesn't strike the same pop-indie balance.  Mostly, it strives for indie cool, but is screaming out for some star quality.  The melodic hooks of The Wave don't linger as they should; Archipelago sounds more like Owl City; and not even the addition of Swedish singer-songwriter Lykke Li guest vocalling on Black Tin Box can lift it from a dirge.  The result is an album that is worthy of your attention, but unlikely to stay there for long, which is surprising from such a talented songwriting team.  It's a real shame that they're unable to sustain their talents across a full album in addition to writing for others.  Still, give Bavarian a go and you won't be disappointed.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Bavarian #1 (Say You Will)
* Devil's Work
* Paddling Out

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Michael Kiwanuka - Home Again

Listening to 'Home Again' is rather like eating a Werther's Original.  Like a hug and a sweet from your favourite Grandfather, it's warm and cosy but ultimately old-fashioned.

It's the debut album from BBC Sound of 2012 winner Michael Kiwanuka.  He was an interesting choice for the winner of the poll - on the one hand an accomplished musician, on the other hand an artist living in the past rather than heralding a novel future.  This conflict permeates the album as a whole.  And like previous Sound of winners' albums, 'Home Again' fails to live up to the hype.

Then again, this isn't a loud pop album that will make crashing waves in the charts (I'm looking at you Jessie J).  This is a soft, slow-burning and soothing record.  Kiwanuka's soul, gospel sound takes huge influence from the likes of Bill Withers and Otis Redding.  So authentic is his sound, 'Home Again' feels like an LP rediscovered from a 1960s time capsule.  Tell Me A Tale immediately sets the tone with its jangling guitars, softly rhythmic percussion and smooth orchestration peppered with jazz flute.  This continues with the catchy I'll Get Along complete with occasional sitar phrase to provide an extra, exotic colour.  The majority of the tracks focus predominantly on Kiwanuka's vocal and acoustic guitar playing.  The lilting and sombre Always Waiting is a particular highlight, whilst the title track (heard across the radio) borders on dull.  Throughout the album, Kiwanuka's vocal steers between silky smooth and pleasingly rough.  Paul Butler's production, meanwhile, retains a sense of sepia warmth in each track.

Kiwanuka's authenticity, though, is his downfall.  In 2012, he holds a unique place in the industry, his music seemingly fresh compared to the amount of electronic pop rubbish in circulation.  Yet his music would be more at home in decades gone by.  He adds little new or original to the soul genre, instead settling on pastiche of his musical heroes.  Once the initial attraction of 'Home Again' subsides, we're left with an album of slightly monotonous and mournful songs from yet another Sound of winner in danger of becoming a novelty.  We all like a Werther's Original from time to time to warm the throat, but a fizzy, sour Haribo leaves a far more exciting taste in the mouth.


Gizzle's choice:
* Tell Me A Tale
* I'll Get Along
* Always Waiting

Listen: 'Home Again' is available now.

Watch: Kiwanuka begins his European tour next month, returning to the UK in May.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Hot Chip - Flutes

Any new track from indie disco's foremost band is cause for excitement.  This track, released in anticipation for new album 'In Our Heads', is no exception, continuing the band's electro dance sound.

A word of warning though: Flutes is definitely a grower.  On first listen, this has none of the immediacy of the award winning Ready For The Floor or And I Was A Boy From School.  This is more of a mid-tempo slow burner.  At well over seven minutes, it errs on the long side and feels a little repetitive in its present state.  Of course, though, it is ripe for remixing.

Eventually, the infectious beat will latch onto your brain and Alexis Taylor's quiet vocal hook will be ringing in your ears - especially in the song's final third where these elements culminate.  Tiny intricacies in the production become increasingly apparent, like changing drum patterns and extra layers of synth washes.  It may not hit the euphoric heights of their previous material, but with any luck it will pave the way to another stunning electro album.

A final word of warning - the video will probably make you sick if you stare for too long...


Listen: Flutes is featured on the band's upcoming album 'In Our Heads' released on June 11th.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Simian Mobile Disco - Seraphim

Simian Mobile Disco's collaboration with Beth Ditto back in 2009 (Cruel Intentions) was a massive tune.  And just as Gossip are releasing a new single with album to follow in May, so too are the dance duo (album pictured).

Compared to their previous techno-centric album 'Delicacies' released in 2010, Seraphim is more of a quietly simmering track.  Grating synths jerk across the mid-tempo drums, fragments of melody bleep and bloop and the infectious beat pulsates along with a vocal sample from none other than Cilla Black.  Contrary to what you may therefore think, this is sexy electronica.  It might not have the immediate disco allure of Cruel Intentions, but it's a well constructed dance track that will surely be doing the rounds in both original and remixed forms in clubs across the country.


Listen: Seraphim is released on the 9th April.  Upcoming album 'Unpatterns' is released on 14th May.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Calvin Harris feat Ne-Yo - Let's Go

Sigh.  Remember a time when Calvin Harris was cool?  When he released electro-pop gems like Acceptable in the 80s and The Girls.  Now he's resigned himself to David Guetta-esque collaborations, from Kelis to Rihanna and now Ne-Yo.  Admittedly his production is the Midas touch to commercial success, but in the process he's lost every ounce of credibility.

The same can be said of Ne-Yo.  Remember smooth jams like So Sick and Because Of You?  The up-tempo beats of Closer or Miss Independent?  Now he's just a clone of Usher, Jason Derulo, Taio Cruz et al - their personalities and individuality melted together into one waxwork model of blandness.

The result?  Let's Go, a record that lacks the excitement either artist previously exuded.  Instead we're left with a dancefloor RnB track that's sickeningly unimaginative.  It might as well be taken straight from "Dance Production for Dummies 101" and the accompanying sample CD (probably).  Four to the floor beat.  Autotuned vocal.  Weak synth hooks, etc etc.  There's quite simply nothing praiseworthy here, just a straightforward piece of musical shite that deserves to reside in bargain bins but undoubtedly is destined to pollute the top of the charts.

Shame on you guys.


Friday, 16 March 2012

Sweeney Todd @ The Adelphi Theatre

The main dichotomy at play in Sondheim's musical thriller Sweeney Todd is horror versus humour.  On the one hand, Sondheim was influenced by cinema and intended Sweeney to be almost a staged horror film.  The mere proposition of a serial killer whose victims end up in meat pies is terrifying enough.  On the other hand, the book is filled with black comedy and a lighthearted view of murder, making the intensely dramatic moments all the more poignant.  Any production of Sweeney must balance these juxtaposed elements, luring the audience in with macabre humour before scaring the hell out of us.

Director Jonathan Kent's West End production, transfered from Chichester Festival Theatre, is a resounding success.  Simply, this is an incredible piece of theatre, performed and produced to a sky high-level and an absolute must-see.  God it's good.

Anthony Ward's 1930s set and costume design is spectacular.  What initially impresses is the sense of scale and height, creating a claustraphobic urban London with a dark, metallic and industrial feel.  With trapdoors and moving set, it works like a perfect machine.  Once lit up by Mark Henderson's lighting, the visuals have a monochromatic quality, intricate shadows cast upon the stage in a web of noirish, moody atmosphere.  This allows the red of Sweeney's fancy chair and the ruby droplets of blood to stand out.

What most impresses though are the performances.  Michael Ball has utterly transformed into the titular pale-skinned odd-eyed barber, seemingly unrecognisable.  His Sweeney is no pantomime villain, but a multifaceted and likeable antihero.  Vocally, Ball is well suited to the role, with a characterful lower register and sweetly melodic upper range to match the varying demands of the score - the hushed and disturbing My Friends a particular highlight.  At first he was quietly imposing but perhaps difficult to warm to, the RP accent a little too polite.  However, his Epiphany was a revelation.  As the raised set moved ominously towards the audience, his menacing and direct address was equally terrifying yet moving in the more romantic phrases.  Little Priest meanwhile brought out a slightly camper side, a welcome change of tack and a rare sadistic smile.  Ball has discovered the inner-humanity of the demon barber - a desperate and revengeful man who demands our empathy with unflinching resolve.

Imelda Staunton provides a hilarious turn as the thrifty Mrs Lovett.  Though she struggled with the vocal demands, this was eclipsed tenfold by her incredible acting ability.  Her rendition of Worst Pies In London instantly depicted the tone of the character with amusing quirks - it barely mattered that much of the music was spoken rather than sung.  Her comic timing was impeccable, the extra lines of Little Priest providing additional examples of the character's witty remarks ("Privates cost extra"), further exemplified by numerous moments of ad-libbing.  In this production, Staunton has succeeded Angela Lansbury in establishing the new standard for Mrs Lovett interpretation.

Anthony and Johanna are, by comparison, less interesting characters yet vocally more demanding.  Luke Brady's lyrical tenor befitted Anthony's boyish charm and as Johanna, Lucy May Barker's soprano was suitably fluttering and birdlike, but too thin and shrill in the upper registers.  John Bowe was positively disturbing as Judge Turpin, the often cut Mea Culpa here delivered in deliciously twisted fashion complete with self-flagellating.  Though his nasal vocal grated slightly, James McConville's eerie final monologue as the deranged Tobias was psychotic.  As a whole, the ensemble were excellent in both large groups and trios, with tight harmonies sung with razor sharpness as they emerged like scuttling rats from every crevace of the set.  Nicholas Skilbeck's conducting did lag behind the singing at times, letting the heat out of the drama, but Sondheim's colourful and unsettling orchestration was well played by the orchestra.

Any minute flaws are merely the result of nitpicking and didn't mar the evening overall.  Through the production's creative direction and triumphant performances, Kent has produced a frightening tale that marries horror with the heart.  This is probably the best show in London - if your tickets are yet to be booked, may you feel the wrath of Sweeney's razor.


Watch: Sweeney Todd runs at the Adelphi Theatre until 22nd September.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Grimes - Visions

A few weeks ago, The Gizzle reviewed Genesis, the first release from the new Grimes album.  Now 'Visions' is finally here, straight from the bedroom of its creator Claire Boucher.

Her music has been described as 'ethereal-pop' - a perfect and succinct description in more ways than one.  The track titles alone give an indication as to the album's grand vision - Genesis, Oblivion, Circumambient and Vowels=Space and Time to name a few.  Of immediate impact is Boucher's vocal that drifts from Enya-esque incantations, to girlish J-pop schoolgirl, to Mariah-esque wailing that only dogs will hear.  Compare the upbeat pop of Genesis with the girlish inflections of Colour of Moonlight and the high-pitched squeaking of Skin. 

The production is sparsely textured yet full of detail, consisting mainly of infectious beats, synth basslines and melodies, and Boucher's vocal, yet somehow becoming more than the sum of its parts.  It's abstract in feeling and construction, yet retains a propensity for pop hooks that gives the album a sense of immediacy.  That this record was produced in Boucher's bedroom is prevalent - the production lacks polish, which nonetheless adds a rough extra dimension to the sound.

More so, 'Visions' has a pleasingly intangible, elusive quality.  Genesis and Oblivion are the obvious single choices at the start of the album - the former for its playful pentatonic melodies and heavily reverbed vocal, the latter for its squelching bass synths and moody feel as Boucher repeats "See you on a dark night".  As a whole, though, the songs sort of blur into a continuous haze of electronica, flitting through varying evocative states.  Moments of colour and fragments of melody will stick in your mind, yet at first listen these will pass you by.  This may seem frustrating (like opening track Infinite Love Without Fulfilment), but after perseverence the delights of 'Visions' slowly unfurl and then disappear, like trapping flower petals in a breeze.  Each press of the play button is like starting anew, each track a fresh revelation. 

After days of listening, more details have become apparent to me, yet I understand the album a little less.  This is the ethereal charm of 'Visions', an album of evocative and intangible beauty.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Genesis
* Oblivion
* Be A Body

Listen: 'Visions' is available now.

Watch: Grimes will be touring the UK in May.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Gossip - Perfect World

Perfect World is a big change from the earlier material from Gossip (formerly The Gossip).  They were the iconic band of 2006 with the release of Standing In The Way Of Control, Beth Ditto becoming a global superstar.

Since then, they've distanced themselves from their punk-rock roots.  The most notable change of tact was Ditto's solo work with Simian Mobile Disco that resulted in last year's self-titled EP, taking on an electro disco flavour.

Perfect World contains all the hallmarks of Gossip, but in focused and concise form - like the new name.  The oscillating bass is still there but is given less emphasis; the drum pattern is simple but forceful; the guitar blends into the overall texture; and Ditto's vocal is less gritty but just as powerful.  The song's impact is by no means diminished - it represents a band who have explored alternative areas and come back with a tighter, more polished sound with an almost No Doubt feel at times.  Once the chorus kicks in, the instrumental force and Ditto's wailing vocal will grab you just as they did six years ago.

In short, Gossip return stronger than ever.


Listen: Perfect World is featured on the upcoming album 'A Joyful Noise' released in May.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Keane - Silenced by the Night

Keane, back to their dull and boring best.

The band are quite simply a relic of 2004.  After winning the 'BBC Sound of' poll in that year, their debut 'Hopes and Fears' was released to commercial success. Since then they've released some songs, two more albums....zzzzzzzzzzz.

The band are now releasing a new single, Silenced by the Night and a fourth album in May.  But aside from the odd synth riff in 'Perfect Symmetry', the band haven't developed their piano-driven rock-pop in the slightest over the past decade.  Same old band, same old music.  Yawn.

Part Coldplay, part Elbow, part Snow Patrol, Keane are quite possibly the dullest band in existence.  If only they were silenced by the night.  And the day.  And every time in between.

Wake me up in three minutes time.


Listen: meh.

Watch: meh.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Estelle - All Of Me

Hands up who can name an Estelle song other than American Boy?  Anyone?  Didn't think so.

And that's not to say her music is bad by any means, but Estelle is yet to see consistent chart success.  It's clear this has been on her mind throughout the creation of 'All Of Me' - she's literally laid all her cards on the table here in the hopes that one will provide a winning hand.  Hip-Hop?  RnB?  Pop?  Soul?  It's all there in an album that subsequently lacks cohesion.

It's also clear she's been spending a lot of time with those American boys, namely Kanye West.  His influence on the production is clear and as a whole, the album has an American feel that suggests Estelle has all but forgotten her London roots (despite referencing Tinie Tempah in the opening track).  

The main problem is the album's disjointedness.  Opening track The Life features Estelle rapping along to a blazing synth bass that initially indicates a darker, grittier change of pace.  This is followed by International (Serious), a collaboration with Chris Brown and Trey Songz that continues this hip-hop vibe.  Later tracks include the smooth, sexy Rihanna-lite Cold Crush, the pop-soul of Wonderful Life, and Speak Your Mind that steals the melody from Freak Like Me, much like Estelle did with Faith on No Substitute Love from her last album.  Though individually fine, these tracks don't hang together as the songs of one artist.  It's as if Estelle is desperate to cover every possible popular genre in the hopes of creating a hit, yet in the process pleases nobody.  What's worse are the insipid interview tracks interspersed throughout the album like voyeurs of a therapy session.  It's an attempt to provide an emotional thread, that ultimately shows up the clichéd lyrics of the songs.  Watching Jeremy Kyle or Loose Women would have a similar effect.

Other female artists have done these songs so much better before - from Rihanna, to Warner rivals Lianne La Havas and Janelle Monae, who joins in on final track Do My Thing.  It turns out to be the best track, Monae's funk essence finally injecting some fun and personality into an album of copycat tracks that don't allow Estelle to let her musical and personal voices be heard.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Do My Thing
* Cold Crush

Listen: 'All Of Me' is available now.

Watch: Estelle has no upcoming shows (as the lyrics of International would suggest...)

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Friends with Benefits (2011) - Will Gluck

Timberlake's done alright for himself really.  From Britney's mate in the Disney Club, to N'Sync, solo popstar and an actor with supporting role in the award winning film The Social Network.  And now he's headlining with Mila Kunis.  All with little acting talent, a high-pitched nasal voice and some decent moves on the dancefloor. 

His character in Friends with Benefits, Dylan, is a bit of a damp nonentity and Timberlake takes Dylan's "emotional unavailability" (read: dullness) to heart to the detriment of characterisataion.  It's hard to see what Mila Kunis's Jamie sees in him, despite his totally freakin' awesome cheesy smile.  Kunis, sexy as ever, plays the tomboy well with sarcasm and dry humour.  The screen is stolen though by Woody Harrelson as Dylan's gay friend, providing the voice of truth amongst the snappy one-liners.

But what of the narrative?  Jamie and Dylan meet when she, a headhunter, finds him, a West coast magazine art director, a job in New York working for GQ.  They begin (rather suddenly) as just friends but decide to help each other out sexually after their failed past relationships.  Of course, this is (predictably) easier said than done.  It's a film filled with clichés - the ending, East coast versus West coast ideals and its attempts at making rom-com stereotypes seem ironic when Friends with Benefits is itself a standard rom-com.  The false script is unrealistic and tries too hard to be funny.  Then, two thirds through, we're introduced to Dylan's father suffering with Alzheimers - a cheap method of creating an emotional crux besides the friendly chemistry between the leads. 

Despite relying on the Hollywood conventions it sets out to confound, it's a cheery enough film that will entertain - at least for the sexy leads.


Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Ides of March (2011) - George Clooney

In politics, loyalty is the only currency we have.  Without it you're nothing.

But what happens when you're lured to the opposition?  Is the grass really any greener?

Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Meyers, a campaign manager for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) in his race for the presidentship.  In the process, he is forced to question his own moral principles.  When you're the best at your job, others will do whatever it takes to steal your position and take you down.  It's a cutthroat world where nobody is quite who they seem and strategy is all that counts.  Blackmailed by the media and disillusioned by the man he thought he believed in, temptation and curiosity rear their heads.  But when you make a mistake, you lose the right to play.  Will Meyers join the corruption?  Or leave politics in its sorry state of affairs?  As the poster suggests, should we tar Meyers with the same brush as Morris?

Meyers gets caught up in the fast-paced world of US politics; by contrast the viewer is caught up in a fairly slow moving drama.  But stick with it and the narrative unfolds in a slowly tightening knot, with Meyers's career at the centre, that twists and turns with increasing intensity.  Gosling's stoic performance has little emotional appeal, but suits the depiction of a man internally questioning his loyalties.  The other actors, namely Philip Seymour Hoffmann, George Clooney and Paul Giamatti, offer suitably duplicitous performances as they cope with the intelligent and complex script.  Knowledge of the US governmental system isn't strictly necessary, this is the story of a man stuck between a rock and a hard place.  That the screenplay is based on a play is telling - there is little action here, just a focused dramatic core.  There are no heroes or villains in this world, but just as Meyers's loyalty shifts, so does the viewers' sympathy.  As a result, the plot is ultimately dissatisfying as we're left wondering if Meyers makes the right decision in the end.  At large, though, it represents the corruption at play within politics and has us questioning the true quality of leadership. 

On a purely dramatic level, then, the film mostly succeeds.  Cinematically, though, Clooney's direction does little to excite or innovate, his purpose solely to serve the story.  How does it fair as a representation of US political agenda?  As a mere UK citizen, this sort of corruption may seem hard to swallow.  Yet with a US election imminent over the next year, the questions that The Ides of March poses are more pertinent than ever.


Friday, 9 March 2012

Laura Marling @ Hammersmith Apollo

Owing to the high profile Mercury Prize and Brit nominations and awards, you'd expect Laura Marling to be a much bigger figure in the public eye.  But it's clear, from seeing her live, that Marling is an artist who eludes fame.  Despite the size of the Apollo filled with eager fans, this had the feel of a much more intimate gig - she quietly walked on to the stage, took her guitar and declared shyly "Hi, I'm Laura" as if we didn't know already.

Stage banter clearly isn't Marling's strong suit.  Her talking was dry and she mostly ignored the heckling "I love you's!" and "marry me's!" from the audience.  Instead, laughs came from the introduction of the band, each stating an interesting fact ranging from hair product flammability, to chicken nuggets and a food replica Apollo spaceship.  Marling's cute and slightly weird sense of humour certainly came across with her interactions with both the audience and her fellow performers.

The music was the central focus of the gig (as it should be) and when Marling's mouth opened to sing rather than speak, her remarkable voice spread over the audience with a collective sigh.  Her pure higher register was released effortlessly, whilst her lower tones were full of quirky character to perfectly match the storytelling of her lyrics.  Stood crossed legged with face to the sky, her angelic voice was complimented by the delicate fingerpicking guitar.  The set consisted predominantly of songs from her recent album  'A Creature I Don't Know', but also included tracks from her past albums 'I Speak Because I Can' and 'Alas I Cannot Swim'.  Accompanied by a band of piano, drums, cello, flute and banjo, at times they overpowered her gentle voice and demeanor.  As such, the central section was the highlight - Marling performing quietly with just a guitar and her voice with spellbinding effect - "It's just you and me".

What was most refreshing was the old-fashioned feel of the gig.  With solely traditional, acoustic instruments there were no bells and whistles, no fancy screens or lighting, no electronic synths in sight.  Quite simply, the night consisted of beautiful songs performed beautifully by a modest and unassuming talent.

And just as she entered, with barely a bow or an encore, she was gone.


Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Temper Trap - Rabbit Hole

Back in 2009, the exceptional Sweet Disposition exploded and catapulted The Temper Trap and their album 'Conditions' into the charts.  Their new, self-titled, follow up is released in May and Rabbit Hole is a taster of what's to come.

What might that be?  Apparently more of the same - this could easily have featured on 'Conditions'.  Dougy Mandagi's signature falsetto, accompanied solely by acoustic guitar, starts off the slow proceedings but half way through the song crescendos to its peak with the electric guitars crashing in, almost reminiscent of 'A Rush Of Blood To The Head' era Coldplay - no bad thing.  It's a more expansive sound that will sound awesome filling stadiums and festival fields over the summer.  The band have eschewed a typical verse-chorus structure, opting instead to pin the success of the track on that explosive core, which after three minutes ends a little abruptly.  As a result, it does lack a big chorus hook and it's not as instantly alluring as Sweet Disposition.  But even if the band haven't developed their sound massively over the past three years, it's a sound that's set to make a welcome return over the coming months.


Listen:  Rabbit Hole will feature on the band's upcoming self-titled album released in May.

Watch:  To coincide with the album release, the band will be touring the UK in May.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Jessie Ware - Running

Having emerged from the underground and featured on SBTRKTs excellent debut album, south London vocalist Jessie Ware is now ready to go it alone.  Following debut Strangest Feeling released in November last year comes this latest track, Running.

Her debut was closer to SBTRKTs agitated electronica, whereas Running offers a more enticing slice of noir RnB.  The chilled production and smooth, husky vocal have reminded many of Sade.  Though she's an obvious influence, Ware's music is much more modern.  The seductive electronic bass entwines with the mid-tempo drum beat and the oscillating electric guitar line matches the overall sexy feel of the track.  Ware's voice only fully lets rip in the final third, but her silky tones are irresistable.  There's clearly more to come from this talented songstress.  Then there's the video full of sophiscation and chic glamour as Ware eyes the camera with sultry magnetism. 

Pure class.

Listen: Running is available to download now.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The Death of Klinghoffer @ ENO

Following its premiere in Brussels in 1991 and subsequent New York production of the same year, American composer John Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer has become a rather controversial work.  This is predominantly for its subject matter, based on the true story of a Jewish-American who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists when they hijacked an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, in 1985.  This ENO production marks the London stage premiere.

Controversy stems from Adams and librettist Alice Goodman's objective approach.  Any work involving terrorism is likely to attract a lot of attention, but Adams, angered by the portrayal of the event in the media, opted simply to give the Palestinians a voice.  Critics have accused the composer and librettist of attempting to justify the terrorists' actions, but this was not their intention.  The Death of Klinghoffer does not directly tell the story of what tragically occured; instead this is a reflective and meditative work that remains distanced and refuses to condemn either side, allowing the audience to consider their own view on the events.

It's through the pursuit of objectivity that the opera fails though.  Its very structure, consisting of seven choruses (six used in this production) interspersed between key scenes of characters reciting their experiences, is more oratorio than opera - like Bach's Passions.  These choruses are heavy-handed and aggressively religious, directly juxtaposing at the start a chorus of exiled Palestinians and a chorus of exiled Jews.  The chorus members (the same used for both religious groups) sing an outcry to the audience with graffiti and quotes splashed onto the walls through projection with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop.  By not explicitly narrating the plot, the work relies on the drama of the situation itself to create tension rather than an engaging story.  This shortcoming is only highlighted by the facts and figures projected onto the set throughout, at odds with the almost fantastical approach to presenting the events.  This isn't helped by the stilted libretto that lacks dramatic impetus.  The scenes are statically directed, the only movement provided by a sea sickness inducing ocean projection.

Thankfully, things pick up in the second half when Leon Klinghoffer, the titular protagonist, is finally introduced.  However, his depiction as a biblical martyr smacks of American bombast.  Not only must we endure his death in slow motion twice, but we are then subjected to an aria sung by the dead corpse complete with overtly symbolic choreography.  Any semblance of drama is then totally undermined with the laughable line "American: kaput" in the following scene.  In a bid to be objective, the extensive cast are given only cursory characterisation so can only be taken as a series of caricatures.  All that's left is a libretto of religious mumbo jumbo on which to hang a flimsy narrative.

What remains is Adams's score, but this too fails.  It's written typically in his tuneless, unending minimalism.  This style certainly creates intensity and heightens the meditative quality of the work, but generally lacks cadence or structure, becoming a general wash of orchestral colours.  The odd interesting chord, dissonance or orchestral mix does not a score make.  This wasn't helped by the slow tempo set by conductor Baldur Brönnimann, turning much of the music into a dirge, with orchestra and cast alike seemingly struggling with timing.  Vocally, some of the solos felt a little thin and the hammy acting belied any sense of naturalism.  The only exception was Michaela Martens as Klinghoffer's wife, who excelled both musically and dramatically in the opera's emotionally charged denouement.  It's just a shame Adams didn't give the character an equally charged melody to sing.  And I can't help but feel that Adams missed a trick by incorporating only tiny influences of middle eastern music, which would otherwise have allowed him to juxtapose the religious ideologies musically as well as dramatically.

The success of the work really depends on its presentation.  As a semi-staged oratorio, the lack of drama would be minimised and the focus on the musical mood would be paramount.  But opera is inherently a dramatic form of stagecraft.  As it stands, The Death of Klinghoffer fails to tell its story through a compelling narrative, which only serves to emphasise the shortcomings of its score.