Sunday 29 December 2013

American Psycho @ The Almeida Theatre

American Psycho has been labelled a 'musical thriller', a label it shares with Sondheim's masterfully sinister Sweeney Todd.  And that's not the only thing these theatrical horrors have in common: a thoroughly dark tone that juxtaposes violence with humour, and a psychotic, villainous anti-hero.

Based on the 1989 novel by Bret Easton Ellis (later adapted for film starring Christian Bale), American Psycho is a dark satire on capitalism in 1980s Wall Street and the superficial, hedonistic lives its inhabitants lead.  The women are shallow and plastic hardbodies; the men are narcissistic suits forever striving for an empty perfection, obsessed with labels, trophy women, elitist restaurants and status.  Within this twisted vision of the American Dream, we follow the mysterious, misogynistic serial killer Patrick Bateman (Matt Smith) whose ennui with life manifests in psychotic bloodlust.  For him, "every pleasure is a bore", he simply kills to "kill time".

Director Rupert Goold has downplayed the brutal violence of the novel - cleverly, his production is devoid of actual blood.  The narrative therefore takes on a deeper, more psychological tone, the action playing out as one long murderous fantasy as we question the boundaries between Bateman's reality and our own.  The stark, monochrome set, sharply lit with projected backdrops, is a suitable reflection of his mind: like Bateman, it is visually stunning yet cold, sterile and artificial.

This is similarly reflected in Duncan Sheik's pulsing electronic score.  The novel is filled with pop music references and, appropriately, Sheik has fused new arrangements of '80s classics with his own original songs - one scene sees Bateman's murders spurred on by a choir of suits and misfits singing a haunting, a capella arrangement of In The Air Tonight.  The heavy influence of the likes of Depeche Mode, The Human League and New Order is clear in the dance synths and programmed beats, the original songs perfectly suiting the period style.  Equally, with '80s music being so prominent in current pop, the score is utterly contemporary to today - one song that lists fashion designers bests similarly fashion-focused songs on Lady Gaga's recent album.  American Psycho might be a period piece, but it's incredibly modern and relevant both musically and thematically.

Smith might not be the best technical singer, but it's hardly necessary with this pop score.  He croons in a dull, flat monotone that matches the character's bored persona (bringing to mind Morrisey's vocal delivery), whilst his movement has a natural awkwardness that adds believable humanity to such a psychotic role.  Yet even when silent, there's a terrifying glint in his eye that transfixes the audience - his Bateman is a character you admire but are horrified by in equal measure.

Smith also has great chemistry with the rest of the talented cast - in particular Jonathan Bailey (as best friend Tim Price) and Cassandra Compton (Bateman's secretary Jean, here the voice of innocence).  Ensemble numbers are long elegant catwalk shows filled with eccentric characters whose movement is brilliantly, robotically choreographed.  The slick dialogue, meanwhile, is often lifted straight from the source text, jarringly shifting from brutal killings to black comedy, each scene brimming with clever directorial touches from Goold too numerous to mention.

The end result is a stylish, sexy and deliciously disturbing piece of theatre that's amongst the most exciting London has to offer and certainly deserves a West End transfer (though watching it in the intimate Almeida Theatre is a real privilege).  No other musical since Sweeney Todd has revelled in psychotic, villainous behaviour quite like this.


Watch: American Psycho runs until February 1st at the Almeida Theatre.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Frozen (2013) - Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

1995 was a turning point for Disney.  This was the year that Toy Story was released, the year that Pixar usurped Disney as the kings of animation.  Disney have tried in vain to retake their crown (Wreck It Ralph being the only recent exception).  With Frozen, the fight continues.

It starts off in typical Pixar fashion with a pre-feature short that, in homage to Disney's legacy, begins as a black and white Mickey Mouse cartoon but soon shifts to include modern CGI.  Not only is it great use of 3D, it's an appropriate fusion of Disney past and present (even if the story does become too Itchy and Scratchy - turns out Mickey is a pretty mean mouse).

It also sets the standard too high - from hereon in things take a turn for the worst.  Disney continue to delve into the works of Hans Christian Andersen for inspiration, this time The Snow Queen.  Regardless, Frozen descends into the usual rubbish about princesses, magic and true love's kiss, including a love triangle between klutzy Princess Anna, the wet Prince Hans and arrogant country boy Kristoff.  Pass me a bucket.

To its credit, Frozen does eventually subvert conventions with its story, but any fairytale charm is lost in modernism.  More so, Buck and Lee (who wrote and directed the film) have failed to recognise that the best Disney films are dependent on a convincing villain: Frozen lacks an equivalent Scar, Jafar, Ursula or Maleficent.  Even the lead roles are bland, with only singing snowman Olaf providing any laughs.

Frozen also lacks any decent music.  The Lion King has its African chanting, Aladdin has its Arabian melodies, The Little Mermaid has its Caribbean rhythms and Frozen has....a pop score devoid of character.  The singing is nice enough but Idina Menzel's voice is far too mature for the young Queen Elsa.  Demi Lovato's song over the credits is the only one you'll be singing on the way out.

Not even the visuals provide charm.  Ice palaces may sparkle with light refracting detail, but the character design is totally uninspired.  Along with its music and plot, Frozen should really have been a straight to DVD film.

Now if someone can wrench the ice out of my heart that would be much appreciated.


Sunday 22 December 2013

Ella Eyre - Deeper

Hotly-tipped for 2014, Ella Eyre this week released her 'Deeper' EP.  The nineteen year old has already seen chart success this year featuring on Rudimental's number one Waiting All Night (one of the biggest selling tracks of the year), but before that she also featured on Bastille's mixtape 'Other People's Heartache' (Pt 2) and has since collaborated with Naughty Boy and Tinie Tempah.

She's certainly capable of going solo however, as lead single Deeper proves.  Sure, her sound is indebted to the Hackney quartet with its soul-dubstep fusion, establishing Eyre as more of a trend follower than a trendsetter.  But it's hard to complain about such a solid release.  Deeper is an instant pop hit for today with a strong vocal and catchy "dig a little deeper" chorus hook.

Across the three-track EP, though, the sound is all a bit one dimensional.  Downbeat lyrics, horn stabs and dubstep beats are all well and good, but Eyre is yet to really show what she's made of.  She might be a strong prospect for next year and a nominee in the BBC's Sound of 2014 list, but it all sounds a bit 2013 to me.


Listen: 'Deeper' is available now.

Friday 20 December 2013

The Last March - Tinder Theatre @ Southwark Playhouse

The Last March, the first production from Tinder Theatre, often feels more like a sketch comedy show than a traditional piece of theatre.  This original piece takes inspiration from a variety of sources (in particular Spymonkey theatre company, who director Ian Nicholson has worked with), combining elements of clown, slapstick and song in ridiculous but creative union.

Bizarrely, the subject of the show is Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition to the south pole – not only was he beaten by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, but Scott and his crew all died on the return journey.  Yet Nicholson has turned this tragedy into a comic triumph, with a lightness of touch that pays tribute to the expedition (there’s a personal connection here as Nicholson’s great grandfather served under Scott).  The three-strong cast bring warmth to a cold snowstorm of a plot, playing multiple parts with cartoonish characterisation that gently pokes fun at the British government, the navy and Norway (as a whole) to great comic effect.  As a result, the tragic conclusion is all the more touching.

The expedition may have taken place over a hundred years ago, but the script is utterly modern, with colloquialisms, song quotes and a quirky, oddball sense of humour.  The randomness of it all keeps the audience on their toes, underlined by a solid sense of comic timing and theatrical inventiveness.  Some jokes miss the mark whilst others feel overly strung out, but the silliness of the whole thing is all part of its charm.

At only an hour long, The Last March is a short, concise and comically rich production – perfect for the Edinburgh Fringe or similar festivals.  Just don’t mention the company name – it’s named after the café in which it was founded, not the dating app.


Watch: The Last March runs until the 4th January at the Southwark Playhouse.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Strangers On A Train @ The Gielgud Theatre

Is there such a thing as a perfect murder?

It’s a theme explored by Strangers On A Train, a new theatrical adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 novel (soon after adapted by Hitchcock in his film of the same name).  The plot sees two strangers agreeing to “exchange” murders to assist each other in their private lives – architect Guy Haines (in this performance, understudy Scott Sparrow) and the eccentric Charles Bruno (Jack Huston).  What begins as a chance encounter soon becomes a pivotal moment for both men as their lives become intertwined in a psychological game of manipulation.

The production is visually stunning.  Influenced by Hitchcock’s film as well as Plato’s ‘chariot allegory’ of the human soul driven by a black and a white horse (quoted early on in the play), the monochromatic visual design replicates an old movie and is as stark as any noir thriller.  Tim Lutkin’s spectacular lighting is complimented by cinematic projections and angular sets, offering an expressionist feel of dancing shadows and eerie spotlights.  The colour scheme filters into the period costumes and the wonderfully detailed, revolving set – the downside being the noticeable amount of backstage noise from the crew during scene changes.  This is somewhat covered by a dissonant, Bernard Herrmann-esque jazz score that provides chilling atmosphere.

The visuals, however, are largely a disguise for a narrative that fails to thrill.  Of the two male leads, Bruno is by far the more interesting.  Though Huston’s eccentric performance lacks a truly sinister edge, his character’s motives revolve around a blatant yet creepy Oedipal triangle and the unfurling of his psychotic behaviour is the driving force of the plot – in the second half in particular.  By comparison, Sparrow’s turn as Haines feels bland, his American accent wavers and his relationship with Huston’s Bruno lacks chemistry, merely hinting at an odd homoeroticism.  The periphery characters include Miranda Raison as Haines’ wife Anne - a typical Hitchcock blonde - and Imogen Stubbs as Bruno’s mother, whose whiskey soaked voice befits her aging sexuality.  The focus of the narrative, though, is very much the titular strangers – a narrative that is long-winded and clunky, playing out in short but slowly paced scenes.  As such, the audience is never lured into the rhythm of the play and never truly invests in the outcome of the plot.

Ultimately and most criminally of all, the play lacks tension and suspense.  It’s easy to see why Hitchcock would originally have been drawn to the story, but this production is missing the key elements that made the auteur such a success.  Strangers On A train oozes style, but no amount of visual effects can disguise its lack of a gripping plot.


Watch: Strangers On A Train is performed at the Gielgud Theatre until 22nd February 2014.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

The Little Mermaid - Blind Tiger Theatre Company @ Riverside Studios

Many people think they know the story of The Little Mermaid, but this is likely based predominantly on the 1989 Disney cartoon.  The original, from famed Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, is a very different, much bleaker tale.

In this, the third production from Blind Tiger Theatre Company, writers David Shopland and Callum Hughes have drawn parallels between Andersen's tragic, oceanic story and his own life.  Just as the titular mermaid longs to live as a human above the sea, Andersen struggles to understand both his place in society and his fluid sense of sexuality - something he, too, had to endure mostly in silence.  "My sentiments for you are those of a woman", he wrote to Edvard Collins, the son of a wealthy benefactor who took Andersen into his home.  These sentiments were not returned.

Shopland, who also directs the piece, has cleverly and almost cinematically merged this dual narrative on-stage, with lines overlapping as our attention shifts from one plane to another.  The evocative lighting design focuses our attention, reflecting both the underwater palace and city life in Copenhagen against a stark yet ethereal white backdrop. The script also quotes Andersen verbatim, for a lucid narrative that seamlessly marries old and new.

The action is accompanied by a simple folk score performed by the actor-musicians on-stage.  The harp, guitar and string melodies add fantastical charm to the production, though with the performers arranged disparately around the sparse stage, tuning and timing are sometimes issues.

The parallel narrative brings with it contrasting styles - the real and the fantastical.  The mermaid scenes feel a little cartoonish, occasionally erring on the side of pantomime with sometimes clunky staging.  The scenes with Andersen, however, are wonderful, his homoerotic relationship with Edvard subtly underplayed.  The cast is held together by a touching and sympathetic performance from Anthony Pinnick as an eccentric and likeable young Andersen.

Blind Tiger's production is a well-researched piece that stays true to the spirit of both Andersen's writing and his own life, full of charm and without a singing crab in sight.


Watch: The Little Mermaid is performed at Riverside Studios until 12th January 2014.

Tuesday 17 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) - Peter Jackson

Thankfully, The Desolation of Smaug is an improvement on last year’s opening to the Hobbit trilogy.  It’s the next instalment in the quest of the fiercely loyal Thorin Oakenshield and his band of bumbling, clumsy dwarves (who frustratingly proceed to get haplessly captured every step of the way) to reclaim their treasure from the dragon Smaug, aided by Bilbo the titular hobbit.  An Unexpected Journey was disappointing as it quickly became clear that this trilogy is not a retelling of Tolkien’s story, but Jackson weaving his own tale with his Lord of the Rings films.  At least this time around we know what to expect, softening the blow.

So what’s new in this film?  As well as Bilbo and the dwarves, we witness Gandalf uncovering the seeds of the Lord of the Rings plot, and a goblin horde in pursuit of the dwarves.  As such, Jackson has developed the film into a multi-stranded and expertly edited narrative that diverges from the book whilst filling in the blanks.  Undoubtedly it will all come together in the final film of what has become a hugely and unnecessarily long-winded tale.

Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) have also been included (despite not appearing in the book), purely to shoe-horn in a forced and awkward love triangle with Kili the dwarf that concludes in laughable fashion.  It is yet another flimsy link to Jackson’s previous trilogy, though the addition of Lilly does provide some femininity amongst the otherwise gruff display of grunting machismo the rest of the cast offer.  At least we get to see a darker side to Bloom’s character, even if his acting ability hasn’t improved.

The film does have its moments of darkness, particularly with the terrific set-pieces.  Arachnophobes will be cowering during the forest scenes and shuddering from the hideous sound effects, whilst Lee Pace revels in graceful spite in his performance as the elven king Thranduil.  Gandalf’s plotline (thankfully containing little of Radagast The Brown – the Jar Jar Binks of the trilogy) culminates in a striking CGI sequence of pure hellish evil – one of the best moments since Fellowship’s Balrog battle.

For the most part though, Jackson wrestles between fantastical prophecies and fairytale humour with a tone that jarringly shifts from one to the next.  The script is overflowing with silly one-liners; the dwarves are little more than two-dimensional jokes; and Stephen Fry is horribly miscast as the Master of Laketown.  And whilst the fighting is tense and often balletically choreographed, there remains moments of absurdity – the barrel sequence in particular.

Of course, the art design is impeccable and New Zealand is beautifully shot, creating a true sense of a convincing world.  Yet after five films in this universe we’ve come to expect this from Jackson – with the bar already so high, he fails to offer any wow moments.  The same can be said of the score which relies too heavily on previous themes – Ed Sheeran’s song over the credits is the only musical surprise.

And then there’s Smaug.  Voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch in a deliciously malevolent turn, his CGI design is wonderful and his scenes with Martin Freeman’s Bilbo are electric.  In short, this is the best computer-generated character since Gollum.

For anyone wondering how there can still be another film to go, rest assured The Desolation of Smaug ends on a ridiculous cliff-hanger.  Of course, we’ll all be rushing to see the final outcome, but after two films it’s clear that with The Hobbit Jackson has failed to recapture the magic of The Lord of the Rings.


Monday 16 December 2013

Lea Michele - Cannonball

It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but you can't deny that Glee has been a huge success - both as a television show and in the charts, let alone making mash-ups popular.

Now it's the turn of Lea Michele to get in on the action as a solo singer.  Cannonball is an uplifting ballad clearly inspired by the death of co-star and boyfriend Cory Monteith.  "And now I will start living today... I got this new beginning and I will fly like a cannonball", she belts out in the undeniably catchy chorus above drum-heavy production.  Yes, it's the cheese-fest you'd expect from Glee with all the subtlety of...well...a cannonball, something that works in the context of the show but less so as a stand-alone pop track.

On the one hand, Michele's powerful and emotive voice proves that musical theatre performers can make it as popstars.  On the other hand, there's a distinct lack of dynamic range and musicality.  Instead we have three and a half minutes of relentless belting, bludgeoning you to make better life decisions.

You could argue that Cannonball is a cynical cash-in on the show's success.  More likely, Michele has been inspired to seize the day and embark on the pop career she's always wanted.  It's not quite her Firework moment à la Katy Perry, but it's a decent enough start.


Listen: Cannonball will feature on Michele's debut album 'Louder' released on 3rd March.

Saturday 14 December 2013

Beyoncé - Beyoncé

It’s only taken five albums, but we’ve finally got to the real woman.  She’s shed her Sasha Fierce alter ego and Mrs Carter tour title; she is now simply ’Beyoncé’.

This album has been a long time coming what with almost continuous speculation throughout 2013, advertisement campaigns for Pepsi and H&M, and a sell-out world tour.  It’s been a struggle, as she bitingly claims on Haunted: “All these record labels are boring, don’t trust these record labels I’m torn”.  Yet at fourteen tracks long, each with its own video, this ‘visual album’ has been well worth the gruelling wait – clearly Beyoncé knows what she’s doing.

But what is a visual album?  In the press release she explains: “I see music.  It’s more than just what I hear.  When I’m connected to something, I immediately see a visual or a series of images that are tied to a feeling or an emotion, a memory from my childhood, thoughts about life, my dreams or my fantasies”.

Essentially, though, she’s filmed all the music videos in advance – no mean feat alongside her tour dates.  Each certainly complements the music with some fascinating imagery, but whether they’re an integral part of the experience rather than just a series of curiosities is up for debate.  Moreover, will anyone watch them repeatedly? Unlikely.  What’s left, then, is the music – does it stand alone?

The title may seem to be lacking in creativity, but importantly she’s consolidated each aspect of her personality into one single name.  Here she is the sex-bomb, the independent woman, the doting mother and the loving wife.  Thematically it might tread on familiar ground, but as with Timberlake’s ‘20/20 Experience’, ‘Beyoncé’ is her opus, her ultimate album, her true statement of intent.

Pretty Hurts makes for an incredibly strong opening track, even if it’s a typical Beyoncé power ballad about the superficiality of image.  Here the target is plastic surgery - “Perfection is a disease of a nation”, she sings with yearning melodies, “It’s the soul that needs the surgery”.  The video, meanwhile, is a powerful story of a beauty queen popping pills and vomiting.  It definitely establishes a gritty, adult image of her that continues throughout the album.

This criticism of image is somewhat undermined by a number of the videos.  Drunk In Love, for example, sees Bey writhing around on a beach whilst singing about how she’s “drunk in love” with husband Jay-Z (whose feature rap includes an irrelevant mention of wife-beating Ike Turner).  Essentially it’s her Rihanna moment, albeit in a far more sophisticated form of sexuality than the Bajan singer.  It’s followed by Blow, a lyrically vacuous song about oral-sex (“keep me coming keep me going, keep me humming keep me moaning”) accompanied by a neon lit dance routine (and a cheeky cameo for sister Solange).  Later, Rocket is an R&B slow-jam with a video full of laughable sexual imagery ("let me sit this ass on you" it begins).  That said, it’s hard to criticise her need for sexual empowerment when she looks so stunning.  Nobody does sexy as well as Beyoncé.

You can also forgive her when the music is so good – Drunk In Love a hip-hop infused love ballad, Blow a Timberlake-esque funk-disco number.  As a whole, ‘Beyoncé’ is a much tougher effort than her previous material, with utterly contemporary production that’s often cold, metallic and darkly sexual.  Take Partition for instance – here Bey half raps, half sings over a finger-click beat and sparse, fizzing synths, its sexual lyrics including the line “He Monica Lewinsky’d all over my gown” before cooing “take all of me”.  The accompanying video fittingly plays out like some dark sexual fantasy. 

Other tracks include the sinister Haunted; Mine, a duet with Drake, with a Virgin Mary referencing video that’s a little overblown; breezy love song XO; and Jealous - an intense, sincere power ballad that strikes a truly emotional note.

However, it’s important to note that, as if in answer to her critics who claim her past albums are simply padding for her singles, ‘Beyoncé’ contains few discernible singles.  Instead it’s intended to be listened to as a complete work.  As such, it’s lacking the usual big belting tracks – the emphasis is on the production rather than her vocals, which remain muted throughout.  This may not be what fans are expecting, but she’s doing something different – and that’s exciting, right?

And then we get to ***Flawless.  It begins with Bow Down that she released as a demo earlier in the year, where she spits out “bow down bitches” to her competition.  It soon morphs into a feminist monologue from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (“we teach girls to shrink themselves to make themselves smaller…because I am female I am expected to aspire to marriage”), before Bey launches into her own diatribe where she sarcastically boasts “I woke up like this”.  Above all her previous tracks, this is her most explicitly feminist song and her true anthem for independent women.

It’s followed by Superpower featuring Frank Ocean: a track that is significant predominantly for its militaristic video that sees Bey marching against police alongside everyone from her career, including the likes of Destiny’s Child, Pharrell Williams and even her tour support act Luke James.  Penultimate track Heaven is a poignant, piano-led ballad (“heaven couldn’t wait for you”), whilst final track Blue is dedicated to her daughter.  Its thematic significance is obvious, rounding out the Beyoncé personality, but the album does tail off a little towards the end.

Also noteworthy is the lack of the Sia-penned Standing On The Sun used on the H&M advert – will this ever see release?  Grown Woman, meanwhile, is disappointingly included purely as a video.

As a whole, then, ‘Beyoncé’ is a tough, powerful and honest album from the current Queen of Pop; a deeply personal work of art.  The lack of singles and modern, hip-hop tinged production may not be what you’d expect from her music, but there’s only one woman on the planet that could release an album of such high quality with no marketing, causing such an Internet sensation. After all, she’s a grown woman – she can do whatever she likes.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Pretty Hurts
* Jealous
* ***Flawless

Listen: 'Beyoncé' is available now from iTunes.

Friday 13 December 2013

Ones To Watch 2014

Nobody can predict the future, but there are plenty of pop acts who broke into the music industry this year with incredibly promising careers ahead of them in 2014.  Here's a look, in no particular order, at some of the ones to watch out for...

1. Chlöe Howl

If you don't know who Chlöe Howl is, then where the HELL have you been for the past year, if not the past week or so at least?  No Strings was released at the tail-end of 2012, followed by Rumour and more recently Paper Heart, leading to a spot on the BBCSO2014 list and a nomination for the Brits Critic's Choice Award 2014 - how she didn't win is beyond me.

Reminiscent of Lily Allen with her very British vocals, lyrically Howl is full of youthful angst and biting humour - is there any lyric more cutting than on her snarling debut, "you don't even know if I'm the right sex do you"?  Beneath it all is pounding synth production that's as hook-laden and infectious as it gets.  This is mainstream pop at its most brutal and honest.  The full album can't come soon enough.

2. Lulu James

As with every other year, 2013 has been full of trends - soul, disco and futuristic electro being three that culminate in singer Lulu James.  Originally from Tanzania, she now resides in Newcastle where it's only recently that she's honed her musical abilities.  Her earlier material was heavily influenced by dub-step, notably her 2012 EP 'Rope Mirage', but over the past year she's released the bubbling Closer, the futuristic club beats of Step By Step and the cooing mid-tempo jam Sweetest Thing to rave reviews.  The combination of electronic production and slinky, soulful vocals certainly brings to mind the likes of Jessie Ware and AlunaGeorge, but James is slowly carving out a sound that's all her own - expect to hear plenty of it in 2014.

3. Clean Bandit

Clean Bandit have already released a number of singles this year but are still yet to release a full album.  When it finally arrives in 2014 it should be worth the wait.

"So you think electro music is boring?", the vocals question on Mozart's House.  Not with this band.  The deep house and garage infused production on each of their singles is full of glitchy beats and soulful vocals - so far so 2013.  And then the string quartet comes in...sorry what?!  You wouldn't think classical music and dance music would mix, but with Clean Bandit it absolutely does.  It's this exciting fusion that makes the band a unique prospect for next year.

4. Say Lou Lou

No act this year has done dreamy melancholy quite like Swedish-Australian sisterly duo Say Lou Lou and that's purely off the back of a handful of singles: last year's Maybe You, and 2013's Julian and Better In The Dark (plus its arguably superior B-side Beloved).  The sisters' subdued vocals and yearning melodies settle into richly textured dreamscapes of glittering synths and muted drums, wrapped up in a sad-pop package of heartbreaking lyrics ("and if I'm your beloved then why don't I fit?").  Their future album will surely make for an ethereal, mesmeric experience.

5. Betty Who

Also hailing from Australia, Betty Who's music couldn't be more different.  Indebted to Whitney's 80s pop, Who released her EP 'The Movement' earlier in the year in an explosion of hooky, bubblegum melodies and colourful production that sparkles from start to finish.  Somebody Loves You and You're In Love feature incredibly catchy choruses, whilst Right Here proves she can do poignant ballad just as well.  Who began the year unsigned but has since joined RCA Records, with a full album in the pipeline for 2014.

6. Tom Aspaul

That Aspaul is the first signing on Little Boots' record label On Repeat should be enough to get any pop fan excited.  That his debut single Indiana is a stonking pop track is the icing on the cake.

Produced by MNEK, the Sam Sparro-indebted pop-disco sound features layers of synths and a shuffling beat, above which Aspaul soulfully intones "and it feels, yeah it feels so good when you're here".  It might be about all we've got to go on right now, but with such an experienced team behind his career you can bet there's plenty more where that came from.

7. MØ

Danish singer-songwriter Karen Marie Ørsted recently announced the release date of her debut album 'No Mythologies To Follow' (February 24th 2014) and it'll definitely be one to look out for.  At the start of this year, tracks like Pilgrim, Waste Of Time and Glass put MØ firmly into the minds of music bloggers - all songs that will appear on the album, in addition to the Diplo produced XXX 88 and the (annoying) Never Wanna Know taken from her slightly disappointing EP 'Bikini Daze'.  As a whole, though, the album is an exciting prospect, full of uniquely produced, quirky and lurching Scandinavian pop.

8. Little Daylight

Brooklyn trio Little Daylight have a sound that's perhaps the most familiar on this list: pounding electro power pop full of glittering synths and catchy hooks indebted to many other acts (Chvrches especially).  Yet their songs are so accomplished that they're hard to ignore.  Their debut EP 'Tunnel Vision' is yet to see release in the UK, but tracks like Glitter and Gold and Overdose are polished efforts with plenty of transatlantic appeal.

9. Luke Sital-Singh

The Gizzle first reviewed Sital-Singh's debut EP 'Fail For You' way back in August 2012 and it seems that in 2014 he'll be receiving the attention he deserves.  Far from just another troubadour songwriter with a guitar, his softly plucked acoustic patterns form a bed for his heart-breaking lyrics.  On the EP's title track for instance, he sings beautifully of a broken relationship with the chorus lyric "I bought you the sky and the oceans too, by the look in your eye the only thing I couldn't do is fail for you".

2013 saw the release of two more EPs, 'Old Flint' and 'Tornadoes', that continued his delicate and sincere songwriting.  Even if a future album merely takes the best bits from his EPs, it'll be a stunning collection of songs.

10. ???

It might be a cop out, but the tenth spot on this list is saved for the unknown.  There are bound to be plenty of new artists breaking in 2014 who will surprise and delight our ears - who knows what treasures record labels from around the world have up their sleeves, not to mention independent acts?  2013 will be a tough act to follow, but the future is certainly bright.

Thursday 12 December 2013

St Lucia - When The Night

It seems a bit odd to be reviewing the debut LP from Brooklyn-based Jean-Philip Grobler (a.k.a St Lucia) in December.  In part that's because 'When The Night' was released in the USA back in October (and is yet to see UK release), but mostly it's because this vibrant and colourful tropical pop is so far removed from the cold Christmas weather.  Just look at that cover art for starters.

Right from the off, the breezy opening of first track The Night Comes Again transports us to some sun-soaked island beneath an azure sky.  And once we're there, the album settles into its 80s groove full of pop hooks, neon textures and saxophone solos - think Toto meets M83.  It's a sound that's exemplified by lead single Elevate, with its chiming synths, dance beats and deep bass grooves - if your feet aren't at least toe-tapping whilst you're listening then you must be soulless.

Grobler originates from South Africa and these roots are certainly apparent in the calypso beat of Wait For Love, as well as the overall bright, positive disposition of the whole album.  The sense of joy continues with Call Me Up (a seemingly innocuous booty call) and the dance break of We Got It Wrong, right through to frenzied closing track When The Night.  All Eyes On You slows things down with some oceanic effects reminiscent of All Saints' Pure Shores, whilst September is a pulsating, mesmeric dance track that fans of Friendly Fires will definitely appreciate.  Only with Too Close do things take a darker turn (though its echoing outro ends the song on a playful note), but the album overall is a thoroughly buoyant and euphoric affair.

Grobler has offered a thrilling pop album with consistently high quality songs that makes for one of the most accomplished debuts of the year - something you'd expect from someone who released two EPs last year and has remixed the likes of Passion Pit, Foster The People and Charli XCX.  For anyone craving some winter sun this is your ticket - fingers crossed we get a UK release in time for next summer so we can enjoy the album's warm glow whilst catching some rays.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Elevate
* All Eyes On You
* Too Close

Listen: 'When The Night' is available now in the USA, UK release coming soon - listen in full on the St. Lucia website.

Sunday 8 December 2013

The Upstanding Member @ The Old Red Lion Theatre

As an alternative Christmas show, The Upstanding Member is a very timely production.  Yet more so, this modern farce is poignant for its political themes - politicians and lawyers are as corrupt as in reality, yet it's the journalist who remains the common enemy.

Writer Gregory Skulnick has cleverly kept the MP at the centre of the drama nameless, not only due to his super injunction but as representative of any number of politicians.  Yet is he the upstanding member he claims to be?  Two robbers posing as lawyers know otherwise and on this Christmas Eve, 'the man' can expect any number of visitors...

This is a farce that frequently verges into satire, with a complex and layered narrative full of red herrings and double bluffing to keep the audience guessing throughout.  Although it gets off to a slow start, the tension and the pace soon ramp up as the screw turns and then unravels layer by layer in a satisfying denouement.  It quickly starts to feel out of control, but director Hamish MacDougall has ensured that the production runs like a perfect machine, in particular with the use of props and the cast's movement around the minimal yet well-dressed stage.

Importantly, The Upstanding Member is very funny.  Skulnick's script is as witty as it is bitingly satirical, filled with puns and innuendo (as you might expect from the title), all spoken in suitably clipped fashion by the strong cast.  Tim Dewberry and Izaak Cainer make for a hilarious double act as robbers Alistair and Danny, whose clever improvising gives the plot its momentum.  Stephen Omer's MP is suitably slimy, but ultimately easily manipulated (by his wife in particular), whilst Ed Sheridan's bumbling Mr Graver is naively caught up in the proceedings.  As a whole the cast are naturally amusing without resorting to cartoonish acting, adding a sense of believability that enhances the underlying themes.

The Upstanding Member is the first production from Rival Theatre: a polished, cutting and consistently funny political romp.  Let's hope there's plenty more where that came from.


Watch: The Upstanding Member runs until the 4th January at the Old Red Lion Theatre.

Friday 6 December 2013

The Gizzle Review's Top Albums Of 2013

It's been quite a year, hasn't it?  What began with a promised return of guitar-pop from Radio 1 boss George Ergatoudis soon moved into a feminist melting pot of twerking, bangerz, open letters, rapey lyrics and that Lily Allen video.  And let's not forget the disco-fuelled battle for song of the summer between Daft Punk and Robin Thicke (no contest there).

2013 was a year where breakout artists for once lived up to the hype.  Debut albums from the likes of Haim, CHVRCHES, AlunaGeorge, Laura Mvula and The 1975 all found critical success, proving the tastemakers right after multiple awards and accolades before their careers had fully taken off.  That's not to mention the artists who leapt seemingly out of nowhere - Icona Pop and Lorde especially.  Other acts like Charli XCX, Savages, Disclosure and Daughter also had exciting debuts.

This was, however, very much the year of the comeback.  Established artists and bands like Arcade Fire, Janelle Monáe, Little Boots, Phoenix, Foals and James Blake all returned with excellent albums, the latter surprisingly winning the Mercury Prize.  There was even room for some surprises - the pure pop of Tegan and Sara; Little Mix living up to their X Factor winning status; Paramore fusing pop further into their teen rock aesthetic; Dawn Richard's sultry dance-R&B; and V V Brown's incredible turnaround.  And in a year that saw some disappointing rap albums from the egotistical Kanye West, Eminem and Jay-Z, it was Drake who provided the best hip-hop album of the year.

Mostly, 2013 saw the return of some huge names - from veterans like David Bowie and Pet Shop Boys, to more recent heavyweights like Daft Punk, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Lady GaGa and Britney Spears.  Even now, opinions continue to be split.

So, with the benefit of hindsight, which are the albums that were not only played all year but will continue to be on repeat well into 2014?  Read on...

10. Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience

Why It Made The Top 10:
Perhaps the most controversial addition to the list, Timberlake's return to music definitely divided opinion.  For some, the lengthy, dragged out songs lack the same pop appeal as his previous material, whilst the overtly sexual lyrics are sleazy.  For others, this double album is an opus of sexy grooves and Timbaland's influential production that sees Timberlake re-establishing himself as a superstar.  Part One is certainly the stronger of the two, but together 'The 20/20 Experience' is undoubtedly one of the major musical events of the year.

What We Said
"Ultimately, Timberlake’s confidence is irresistible.  ‘The 20/20 Experience’ cements Timberlake as a pop master, not just on top of his game after a (long) six year break, but on top of the world.  All hail the king of pop.  Sit back, put on your headphones, press play, and let JT make love to your ears."

Best Track: Mirrors

9. Dawn Richard - Goldenheart

Why It Made The Top 10:
'Goldenheart' was released way back at the start of the year and no other pop-R&B record has come close to matching Richard's sultry vocals and moody production.  Fusing elements of pop, R&B, dance, dubstep and more, this is an album that shudders and fizzes as much as it slinks and blooms, with a sexual maturity far beyond Rihanna's comprehension.  If this one passed you by, get on it immediately.

What We Said
"Pop sensibilities are at the core of ‘Goldenheart’, but just as one melody takes hold, the production shifts and evolves in a new direction..Richard may be working with typical tropes and genres, but with ‘Goldenheart’ they are subverted and made fresh."

Best Track: Frequency

8. AlunaGeorge - Body Music

Why It Made The Top 10:
AlunaGeorge released their debut single You Know You Like It back in April 2012 - for fans, 'Body Music' was a long time coming.  But it was certainly worth the wait, cementing a contemporary sound that's sexy and cool with its glitchy beats, sparkling synths and cooing vocal melodies.  It's a lengthy album, but crammed with twisted R&B tracks that sound as fresh at the end of the year as they did on the album's summer release.

What We Said
"It may have its flaws, but this debut from the London duo remains one of the best pop albums of the year so far – a collection of songs that dazzle, thrill and arouse from start to finish."

Best Track: You Know You Like It

7. The 1975 - The 1975

Why It Made The Top 10:
The Manchester four-piece were much touted at the start of the year and the release of their debut in September didn't disappoint, following successful EPs, a support slot on Muse's tour and performing at plenty of summer festivals.  Bright, effervescent tracks like The City, Sex and Chocolate have been ubiquitous on the radio for most of 2013, whilst the full album has a youthful, almost dreamlike quality that's continued to charm beyond the singles.  This really is an album with universal appeal.

What We Said
"The 1975 have proven, then, that it's not just synths that can make you dance, but guitar hooks and yearning pop melodies.  This is an accomplished debut album that is bound to light up the radio, the charts and gig venues across the country, appealing to pop fans, guitar fans and everybody in between." 

Best Track: The City

6. Janelle Monáe - The Electric Lady

Why It Made The Top 10:
As a celebration of the outsider (encapsulated by her android alter-ego Cindy Mayweather), Monáe's 'The Electric Lady' should be applauded for its lyrical themes as much as the music.  Yet beyond the high concept, tracks like Q.U.E.E.N, Primetime, We Were Rock & Roll and What An Experience work as standalone tracks, combining funk, soul, R&B and hip-hop into a creative concoction that never fails to thrill.

What We Said
"The concept might be difficult for some to look past, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more creative album released this year.  Monáe has proven once again why she's one of the most unique artists of our time with an album that deserves both critical and commercial success."

Best Track: Primetime

5. Tegan and Sara - Heartthrob

Why It Made The Top 10:
At just over thirty minutes long and comprising only ten tracks, 'Heartthrob' is compact, concise and doesn't outstay its welcome.  Yet within that short amount of time, the album is jam-packed with hooks, catchy choruses, playful synth production and heartbreaking lyrics, all wrapped up in a power pop package devoid of a single bad track.  No other album this year can match it for sheer consistent quality.

What We Said
"This might be frothy pop, but a hell of a lot of care and love has gone into its creation.  It’s youthful and vibrant, playful even, but there’s equally a maturity and a confidence here."

Best Track: Closer

4. V V Brown - Samson & Delilah

Why It Made The Top 10:
Simple really - this is the most unique album on the list.  As it becomes increasingly difficult to carve a new sound, V V Brown has done just that with her fusion of melancholic disco and archaic gospel with a biblical concept.  Grand and evocative on an operatic scale yet equally personal and spiritual, this is a stunning piece of avant-garde pop and quite the turnaround from Brown's earlier doo-wop days.

What We Said
"'Samson & Delilah' is a remarkable artistic release, a biblical vision brought to musical life through incredible use of mood and drama.  Nothing else sounds quite like it."

Best Track: Faith

3. Haim - Days Are Gone

Why It Made The Top 10:
Haim have had a phenomenal year.  What began with their BBC Sound of 2013 win continued with a busy summer on the festival circuit that established the sisters' live credentials (as well as Este's infamous 'bass face').  It all culminated in a polished debut that begins with three massive singles and just keeps on delivering.  Girl band pop hooks rub shoulders with scuzzy guitar riffs in an unlikely combination of old and new, whilst in interviews Haim prove time and again why they're the coolest girls in pop.

What We Said
"In a time when electronic music rules, Haim have seemingly done the impossible: lived up to the hype with a guitar-centric album.  They’ve survived the initial buzz and a hectic festival schedule to release an album that polishes an already accomplished live set."

Best Track: Don't Save Me

2. CHVRCHES - The Bones Of What You Believe

Why It Made The Top 10:
CHVRCHES' music is ripe with contradictions: melancholic lyrics sung over ecstatic, fizzing production; delicate melodies spun over pounding beats; and Lauren Mayberry's vocals delivered with both girlish fragility and spiteful menace.  In both live and recorded form, the Scottish trio bring an element of abrasive, Glaswegian grit to their neon electronic textures - the opposite of most soulless EDM that fills the charts.  CHVRCHES came for us with all that they have, resulting in the essential electro-pop album of 2013.

What We Said
"Mayberry is CHVRCHES not-so-secret weapon, elevating the trio above the competition." 

Best Track: The Mother We Share

1. Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

Why it made the Top 10:
Really, 'Random Access Memories' deserves the number one spot on the strength of Get Lucky alone - inescapably the song of the year and responsible for the 2013 disco revival.  As an album, though, 'RAM' is an incredible piece of craftsmanship.  It might not have the pop hooks many fans were expecting, but the production is impeccable, with 70s funk grooves melding with typically Daft Punk dance techniques for a sound that reflects the music of the past, present and future.  A masterpiece.

What we said:
"Above all, 'RAM' is a soul record.  In a pop landscape saturated with electronic music, it's ironic that it takes two robots to remind us we're human after all."

Best Track: Get Lucky

Honourable Mentions...

Daughter - If You Leave

What We Said:
"If you can make it through the whole of ‘If You Leave’ without crying, you have a heart of stone."

Best Track: Youth

Foals - Holy Fire

What We Said:
"Foals have grown into one of the UK’s most preeminent rock bands and for good reason.  ‘Holy Fire’ is an incredibly accomplished album that sees the band at the top of their game, an album that will appease old fans as well as draw in some new ones."

Best Track: Inhaler

And let's not forget about the best tracks of the year.  Here's a handy playlist.  You're welcome.