Tuesday 30 September 2014

Next Fall @ The Southwark Playhouse

“I want you to love me more than you love Him”.

What happens when religion gets in the way of love?  That’s the key question in Next Fall, a play in which homosexuality is normalised and religion is the mark of the outsider.  When atheist Adam (Charlie Condou) discovers his boyfriend Luke (Martin Delaney) is a Christian, it forces him to question his own beliefs.  Is his lack of faith holding him back from true love?  And with Luke on his deathbed in hospital, what will become of their relationship in the afterlife?  Their relationship is told through flashback as we witness the couple overcoming their religious differences to make their relationship work.

Next Fall is directed by Luke Sheppard, following his exciting production of In The Heights earlier this year.  Yet again he is bringing a Broadway hit to the UK for its premiere and here he directs with clarity and a sympathetic touch to portraying life in modern New York.  He is undoubtedly a director to keep an eye on.

On the surface, the play is a typical hospital drama.  It all begins with an almighty crash and, with Luke in a coma, his nearest and dearest are forced together to confront their differences.  So far, so typical.  Yet beneath the gentle sit-com rhythm of this modern-day play, it simmers with tension and thematic depth.  Writer Geoffrey Nauffts has delivered an emotional wolf in sheep’s clothing: nuanced, easy to watch, but offering an honest and thought-provoking exploration of relationships.

This is clearly a man’s world, however, the female characters used for little more than comic relief.  Where the core narrative revolves around the central couple and Luke’s unaccepting and religious father Butch (a menacingly macho Mitchell Mullen), his mother Arlene (Nancy Crane) and Adam’s friend Holly (Sirine Saba) are pushed to the sidelines.  That said, Crane has both impeccable comic-timing and a subtle touch, whilst Saba is loveable as the hippyish, yoga-devoted, fag hag friend.  Ben Cura is also a joy to watch as Luke’s friend Brandon.

The real heart of the production, however, comes from the believable and genuine portrayal of Adam and Luke from Condou and Delaney, who perform with truth and conviction.  Condou is cynical and sassy as Adam; Delaney’s Luke is a well-rounded character struggling with both his acting career and his sexuality.  Their relationship shouldn’t work, but somehow it does.  Stunning naturalistic performances alongside some touching incidental music from Pippa Cleary elevate the piece to something beautiful.


Watch: Next Fall runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 25th October.

Photos: Robert Workman

Monday 29 September 2014

Pride (2014) - Matthew Warchus

It’s easy to dismiss Pride as a gay Billy Elliot.  After all, it’s another film that subverts our views of machismo miners.  That, however, would undermine the importance of this film – perhaps the most remarkable equal rights film this decade.

Note ‘equal rights’ there.  This isn’t strictly a ‘gay’ film, it’s a film that celebrates equality for all.  That said, the changing views of homosexuality plays a big part in the film.  At the start “gay” is a dirty word that can barely be spat out by the cast of characters; by the end it’s something to be celebrated.  Long may that continue.

Set in Thatcherite 80s Britain and based on a true story, Pride sees a group of young homosexuals fund-raising to assist miners in a small Welsh village during the miners' strikes.  If anyone can understand the persecution of the miners it’s ‘the gays’.  What brings them together is a common enemy: Thatcher (apparently, she’s fairgame now she’s dead).  This is a film about the power of community spirit, the collision of two contrasting communities and the unlikely alliances that are formed.  One particular scene sees the Welsh community one by one rising up in song - it's a powerful statement.

There’s plenty of comedy in the attempted integration.  There’s a real contrast between the grey, downtrodden life of the miners and the eccentric, colourful London.  The film does a wonderful job of recreating the thrill of 80s London – the underground clubs, the bizarre fashions and the brilliant soundtrack (Bronski Beat themselves make an appearance singing their seminal hit Smalltown Boy).  Both communities are able to open the eyes of their opposites to a brand new world.  Seeing a group of elderly Welsh women in a gay leather club is hilarious, and seeing Imelda Staunton waggling a dildo around is worth the entrance fee alone.

Of course, any community is made up of individuals and the narrative of Pride consists of a combination of personal, touching human stories.  Ben Schnetzer plays the leader of the gay movement, Mark – an incredibly brave and forthright figure with a dark secret; Jessica Gunning plays a wife and mother trying to take hold of her life; Andrew Scott’s Gethin is a man exiled from his home based purely on his sexuality – the scene of him revisiting his family is particularly emotional.  The main protagonist, though, is Joe (George MacKay).  For him Pride is one boy’s coming out story as he fights against the public and his family to stand up for his beliefs, something that personifies the sentiment of the film at large.

There are a number of darker issues that are somewhat glossed over here.  The struggles of the miners themselves, their way of life and their apparent emasculation is barely mentioned; the Aids epidemic is only alluded to; and we never discover the fate of Monica Dolan’s Marion, the only clear villain of the film (Thatcher aside).  As such, Pride could be said to sugar-coat its narrative.  Instead, this is a film of overwhelming positivity with an eminently quotable script; a drama first and a history lesson second.  Charm simply radiates from the screen.

Though one-sided, Pride is a wholeheartedly British film: a wholesome and feelgood comedy-drama.  Isn’t that what we do best?  It’s enough to inspire pride in our communities, pride in our human rights and pride in Great Britain.


Saturday 27 September 2014

Björk: Biophilia Live (2014) - Peter Strickland & Nick Fenton

Björk's Biophilia project was never intended to be just an album.  Released in 2010, it came alongside an app used to compose the music, an educational programme and an extensive two year, 70 date world tour.  This film of the tour's final night at London's Alexandra Palace is the culmination of a unique multimedia venture.

Of course, this being Björk, Biophilia Live is no mere concert film.  The mantra of the project was to combine nature, music and technology.  That continues here.  Through music and visuals, she explores the awe-inspiring power of nature and its relation to human emotions through a grand sense of scale ranging from the microscopic to the cosmological.

Following an introduction from the godfather of nature, David Attenborough, the film combines the live concert - shot with artful cinematography from Brett Turnbull - overlaid and interspersed with macro, aerial and time lapse photography, as well as kaleidoscopic imagery from the app.  Visuals and sound become symbiotic: Virus for instance is accompanied by images of cells and blood that appear oddly delicate and romantic; Cosmogony is paired with suitably celestial planets; lava flows erupt from the screen during Mutual Core (though it doesn't quite match the inventiveness of the official video).  The overall effect is one of hypnotic, earthly synesthesia.

As a film, more could perhaps be done to explain the meaning behind the project, the construction of the newly created instruments, or to give an insight into the people onstage.  For that, though, there's always the When Bjork Met Attenborough programme.  This is, after all, Björk's artistic vision not a documentary from the two directors.  Their input is merely to contain her otherworldly aesthetic on-screen.

The concert itself, meanwhile, is an extraordinary spectacle.  Musical tesla coils spark with electricity; the 'gravity pendulum harp' swings perpetually, ominously; imagery is displayed on screens; and Björk is accompanied onstage by a ghostly, all-female Icelandic choir and their ritualistic dancing.  The set includes a handful of songs from her extensive back catalogue (notably Hidden Place, Isobel, Possibly Maybe and One Day - performed on hang drum), all of which fit neatly into the Biophilia aesthetic.  It's perhaps disappointing that some other favourites weren't included, but this isn't meant to be a greatest hits.  Yet whilst it's never quite the same as being there in person, the film certainly captures the thrill of the live experience.

Most of all, the film highlights the sheer force of nature that is Björk herself, above any distracting accompaniments.  In an abstract, shell-like dress and flaming afro, she marches around the stage singing with a voice that's truly elemental: fiery, whispering, lyrical and guttural.  She remains humble throughout, however, meekly thanking the audience after each song.  If the whole Biophilia project has succeeded in one thing, it's delivering to the world this powerfully innovative, sexually-charged and idiosyncratic Icelandic talent.


Watch: Björk: Biophilia Live screens at the London Film Festival, is released in cinemas on 17th October and on DVD from 3rd November.

The Play That Goes Wrong @ The Duchess Theatre

So it's a play...and it goes wrong.

Yes, this production from Mischief Theatre Company simply does what the title suggests, but the comedy in its deconstruction of the play-within-a-play is hugely inventive.

'Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society' are putting on a show, a 1920s style whodunnit called 'The Murder at Havisham Manor'.  Unexpectedly it turns into a comedy disaster.  Everything that could possibly go wrong...does.  Props go missing.  Lighting and sound cues are missed (by the resident techie sat in the audience).  Lines are missed, causing the script to go round in circles.  Slowly but surely the set is utterly destroyed.  And so much more.  As one actor screams, "this set is a deathtrap".

Yet the actors plough on, slaves to the script no matter how badly things go.  This in itself is cause for dramatic irony as they're trapped within a play with no choice but to reach its conclusion.  Their scramble to hold things together is hilarity at its finest.

If Basil Fawlty were putting on a play, this is probably how it would turn out.  The script has its moments of wit, but this is hardly deep satire.  Rather, the focus is on visual and slapstick humour.  A closer look behind the scenes may have provided some theatrical depth, but as pure entertainment goes it cannot be beaten.  The absurd nature of the show is guaranteed to have you bent over crying with laughter.

Beneath the surface, though, the seamless production is incredible.  Nigel Hook's set design is especially well constructed and Mark Bell's direction is highly polished.  It may seem manic, but this is slick, organised chaos.

The actors' crazed and hammy over-acting is similarly underpinned by talent.  The unravelling battle between Sandra (Charlie Russell) and Annie (Nancy Wallinger) to play the vampy female lead is particularly hilarious, whilst Dave Hearn's hapless Max gormlessly grinning at the audience after every applause is very sweet.  As actor and director of the company Chris (Henry Shields) tries to hold it all together, his frustration is palpable.  Mostly, this is a tour-de-force of comic timing from the whole cast.

The Play That Goes Wrong is an actor's worst nightmare.  It's enough to put you off acting for life, but it's a joy to watch.


Watch: The Play That Goes Wrong runs at the Duchess Theatre until February 2015.

Ticket courtesy of Official Theatre.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Azealia Banks - Chasing Time

I’m not sure who is the biggest music industry joke: U2 or Azealia Banks.  Yet for one of these acts that’s about to change.  Whilst one has just released a virus via Apple, the other has just released the best track of her career.

Azealia Banks was once hailed as the coolest person in rap following her huge hit 212, but after a string of rubbish follow-up tracks, a debut album that still may never see the light of day, cancelled gigs and some poorly misjudged twitter spats, her reputation has plummeted.  It’s no wonder she was dropped by her label.

That seems to have done her the world of good, however.  Chasing Time fuses the euphoric house influences of her past material with an infectious beat, a catchy sung chorus hook and her usual feisty attitude.  “My attitude is bitchy but you already knew that / and since we can’t get along, I think we should both move on” she spits during the song’s break, the whole sentiment of the song clearly aimed towards her old label as she sings “I don’t wanna be around anymore / I’m through giving I’ve got to go” in the chorus.  This is the song that, like 212, will propel her into the mainstream whilst retaining that sense of cool we all fell in love with three years ago.

Azealia Banks is back with a vengeance, then.  Let’s hope she’s back for good.


Listen: Chasing Time will feature on forthcoming album ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’ that will be released…soon?

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Fred and Madge @ The Hope Theatre

Earlier this year, the life of British playwright Joe Orton was celebrated in musical form in Orton at the Above The Stag Theatre.  Now, Rough Haired Pointer are premièring Fred and Madge, Orton's first ever play that was written in 1959, discovered after his death in 1967 and later published in 2001.  Sadly (yet understandably for a fledgling playwright), this is not Orton at his best.

Fred and Madge is semi-biographical, the titular couple thought to be based on Orton's parents.  Orton grew up in Leicester and hated the mundanity of working life there.  The play is, therefore, something of a meditation on boredom - albeit a completely bizarre one.

When we first meet the middle-aged couple they are, inevitably, arguing in their dingy suburban home, moaning about their gloomy lifestyle.  Fred (Jake Curran) spends his working days perpetually rolling a stone up a hill; Madge (Jodyanne Richardson) futilely sieves water in a bath tub.  It's a satirical and depressing view of life.  "Oh the boredom! the fatigue of living!", says Fred in the opening scene, "No merriment, no whoopie, no frolics".

Soon the play takes a turn for the surreal and absurd.  This is, in fact, a play-within-a-play - Jordan Mallory-Skinner plays a director who appears from the audience to mastermind proceedings.  There's certainly comic irony in the couple knowingly acting in a play of their own lives, but Mary Franklin's direction does little to differentiate between the two levels.  What little narrative there is of the couple remarrying and eventually following their dreams in India is lost in confusion and disjointedness.

There are flashes of wit and satire throughout, with some amusing lines and a scene involving a "insultrice" who insults various British establishments like the BBC.  Yet, as the saying goes, only boring people are bored.  Franklin does little to combat this.  There are some zany characters performed for laughs by the supporting cast, but the overall narrative thread is lost in surrealism.  And for a play that takes place in a number of settings - a children's playground, a factory, a theatre, a hospital and a garden for example - Christopher Hone's relatively unchanging design only heightens disinterest and provides little to signpost through the plot (though the use of trapdoors is cleverly done).

Ultimately Fred and Madge is a confusing little play that this production fails to get to grips with.  Not even Orton can make brilliance out of banality.


Watch: Fred and Madge runs at the Hope Theatre until 18th October.

Monday 22 September 2014

Pentatonix - PTX, Vol. III

Slowly but surely, a capella five-piece Pentatonix are amassing a considerable repertoire.  With so many songs on their YouTube channel, it's sometimes frustrating that not all of them have been recorded for the albums.  Yet whilst fans might enjoy looking back to their earliest work (including their Sing Off performances), the group press on with albums that continue to offer surprises.

As with their previous releases, 'PTX, Vol. III' is a mixture of covers and originals.  In their pursuit of bringing a capella singing to the masses, they've chosen some of the most popular tracks from this year (particularly from the UK): Ariana Grande's Problem, Disclosure's Latch and Clean Bandit's Rather Be.  Then, inspired by their touring in Europe, there's a cover of Stromae's Papaoutai - a song that was huge in France but relatively unknown elsewhere.  Sung in French and with extra violin accompaniment from Lindsey Stirling, it's an unusual but very welcome addition.

Mostly, the group stick to the EDM-style tracks they're best at.  With Scott, Mitch and Kirstie taking it in turns to sing lead vocals and mimicking ethereal trance synths, these tracks really show off the rhythm section of Avi's impossibly deep bass and Kevin's phenomenal beat-boxing.  That said, as with the EDM genre itself, the production is incredibly slick and polished - perhaps too much so.  The album doesn't quite capture the visceral thrill of hearing them sing live.

Their arrangements continue to amaze, however.  La La Latch, for instance, combines Disclosure's Latch with Naughty Boy's La La La; the way they weave the two songs together is complex, taking the listener on a journey through sombre verses, uptempo choruses and a layered middle eight breakdown.  Throughout each song, subtle changes, riffs and beats keep the album fresh even after repeated listening.  And each singer is given their moment, from Kirstie's lead vocals on Rather Be, to Scott's high notes on Problem and lead vocals on Papoutai, and Mitch's Iggy Azalea rap on Problem and stunning falsetto vocals on See Through.

What's most impressive, though, is their original songwriting that's more accomplished than ever.  The difference between the three included here and earlier volumes is huge.  Each feels distinct: the percussive On My Way Home has an anthemic soaring chorus; See Through is an ethereal electronic wonder that perfectly suits Mitch's tone; Standing By ends the album with an uplifting ballad that sees Kevin and Avi taking on greater singing roles, something that's always welcome.

'PTX, Vol. III' provides everything we've come to expect from the group, as well as diversifying their sound to match the tastes of their worldwide fanbase.  It's their best collection yet, proving that for a capella arrangements PTX are simply unmatched.


Gizzle's Choice:
* On My Way Home
* La La Latch
* See Through

Listen: 'PTX, Vol. III' is available now.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Alt-J - This Is All Yours

As with Alt-J's Mercury winning debut 'An Awesome Wave', 'This Is All Yours' begins with an Intro.  Here, it's positively symphonic.  Typical of the band's style, it explores a multitude of sounds - vocal harmonies, whistles, electronics, Asian instruments, guitars, clattering percussion - yet remains delicately layered.

This Intro is followed by...another intro, Arrival In Nara.  As beautiful as it is, it just feels anticlimactic.  It's not until track three that we finally hear the band's first proper statement of intent.

That statement is Nara; together with Arrival... and Leaving Nara they form a sort of framework to the album.  Nara itself is posed as a sort of Nirvana of freedom, with its pro-equality lyrics: "I'm gonna marry a man like no other" sings Joe Newman in his trademark mumble, "I've discovered a man like no other man".  And, in a middle finger to Russia, "Unpin your butterflies, Russia".

That track also includes the line "Love is a pharaoh and he's boning me".  That's not the filthiest lyric though.  No, that accolade goes to Every Other Freckle and its "I’m gonna bed into you like a cat beds into a beanbag / Turn you inside out and lick you like a crisp packet".  It's a strangely delicious lyric that injects some humour into an otherwise cold record.

'This Is All Yours's doesn't mark a huge change from the band's experimental sound, but there's certainly greater use of electronics to flesh out the textures - perhaps making up for the departure of guitarist Gwil Sainsbury.  Bloodflood pt.II, for instance, takes the track of the same name from their debut and adds in clipped, processed beats and throbbing synths.  The biggest effect of all, though, is silence.  Prevalent throughout the album, it gives the effect of the band performing in an infinite void.

There's also great influence of Asian music, particularly on the Nara tracks - a continuation of Taro from 'An Awesome Wave'.  This is, however, a thoroughly British album, from the baroque breakdown in Every Other Freckle, to the Garden of England interlude (played on recorders) and the central Choice Kingdom and its repeated "Rule Britannia".  Elsewhere, Left Hand Free is a twangy rock track and Warm Foothills a gentle acoustic track with lyrics spliced between multiple voices - somehow it works.  Alt-J operate in their own musical language, bending different genres to their whim.

That language consists of exquisitely crafted production, with adventurous sonic textures delicately layered with precision and finesse.  This is an album that demands to be listened to on headphones: lead single Hunger of the Pine and its Miley Cyrus sample especially.  Equally, though, 'This Is All Yours' is lacking the melodic or harmonic interest to match its forebear.  Whilst it has its moments of subtle and unfurling beauty, it's lacking a Tesselate, a Dissolve Me or a Taro.  The experimentation and ambition is there, but the songwriting doesn't quite match.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Every Other Freckle
* Hunger Of The Pine
* Bloodflood pt.II

Listen: 'This Is All Yours' is available now on Spotify and released on 22nd September.

Sweeney Todd @ The Twickenham Theatre

The recent announcement of Sweeney coming to the Coliseum next year may have taken the wind out of the sails of this production at the Twickenham Theatre.  If anything, though, it should be the other way round.  This show has what ENO are likely to be missing: tension and intimacy in place of extravagant spectacle; a quietly brooding Sweeney rather than operatic insanity; and a ticket price that won’t make your eyes water.  The press images alone speak for themselves…

The Twickenham Theatre is an incredibly small and claustrophobic space, which is both a blessing and a curse for this production.  The raised stage means the characters tower over the audience mere inches away, threatening and imposing, their heads practically scraping the ceiling.  With the actors entering from around the audience and interacting with them at every opportunity – Sweeney’s ‘Epiphany’ especially – this is a production full of intensity, the glint in each characters eyes and the force of their singing causing the hairs to raise on the back of your neck.

Equally, there is very little space for elaborate staging.  Sweeney is a show with a variety of set changes, including the pie shop, the “tonsorial parlor” and that infamous chair.  Here, the minimal stage is used to full effect in Rachel Stone’s set design, navigated well by the cast, but it all feels a little cramp and demands the audience use their imagination a little too often.  Pies, for instance, are non-existent.  Blood, thankfully, remains in full effect.

Limitations extend to the suitably grubby and grimy looking cast too, though they deftly switch between ensemble and leads.  Individually, they offer some solid (if safe) interpretations of well-known characters.  David Bedella’s Sweeney is something of a loveable rogue; a romantic villain who weeps at the death of his wife.  Though he barks and growls his lines, he seems preoccupied with singing in a musical tone and doesn’t quite get to grips with the malevolent nature of the character – simply put, his smile is charming but he fails to scare.  Sarah Ingram’s busty Mrs Lovett, by contrast, is wonderful.  Her comic timing is impeccable and singing faultless, yet there’s a psychotic undercurrent to her performance: in her flirting with Sweeney and her straight-faced, knowing delivery of ‘Not While I’m Around’. 

The supporting cast, too, are excellent.  For once, Johanna hasn’t been cast as a squeaky-voiced girl – Genevieve Kingsford’s rendition of ‘Greenfinch and Linnet Bird’ is beautifully sung.  Shaun Chambers offers a clear piercing tenor as Pirelli, Chris Coleman is a comically eccentric Beadle and Josh Tevendale a gentle, boy-faced Anthony.  Mikaela Newton, meanwhile, is engagingly naïve as Tobias with an affecting delivery of ‘Not While I’m Around’. 

Director Derek Anderson has brought out much of the black comedy in the piece and proves (just about) that Sweeney can be performed in smaller spaces.  His production might not be particularly daring or novel in its interpretation of the piece, but it’s thoroughly entertaining – you’ll be grinning with delight more than jumping out of your seat.


Watch: Sweeney runs at the Twickenham Theatre until  4th October.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Ghost From A Perfect Place - Philip Ridley @ The Arcola Theatre

“Pornographic” claimed The Guardian’s Michael Billington on reviewing the premiere of Philip Ridley’s Ghost From A Perfect Place in 1994. That word still haunts the play for this 20th anniversary revival at the Arcola – it remains as shocking and poignant as ever.

Mostly, the play shocks for its extreme depiction of females – specifically young girls – that results in a climactic torture scene. This only works through Ridley’s clever structuring that lulls us into a false sense of security and haunts us with parallels and mirror images. It’s a play of two halves, the first act introducing us to ageing East End gangster (but don’t call him that) Travis Flood (Michael Feast) as he returns from Hollywood to his old grounds. There he converses with sweet grandmother Torchie Sparks (Sheila Reid) and together they reminisce about the heydays over a cup of tea and a biscuit. Flood is a lovable rogue with a silky (literally) exterior and a warm-heart, his career built upon loyalty and respect. He’s not what you’d expect from a criminal.

Neither are the girls. The introduction of Torchie’s granddaughter Rio (Florence Hall) flips the play on its head. Aided by her gang, Miss Sulphur (Scarlett Brookes) and Miss Kerosene (Rachel Redford), they reveal their love for pyromania and hatred of men. They are feisty and aggressive, unpredictable and fanatical, having concocted their own religion based on Saint Donna (Rio’s dead mother). That is, until a revelation from Flood shatters all their expectations.

To an extent this is a reverential play on the power of the past and the taint of memory, but there’s depth to it that’s somewhat ambiguous. Undoubtedly this is a criticism of youth and gang culture, the fear of the elderly of being usurped by the next generation. Yet specifically the focus is feminist. The depiction of the girls could be read as a twist on misogyny: here it’s womankind asserting aggressive dominance over men purely based on gender. Perhaps, also, this could be seen as anti-feminist, a male playwright portraying his fears of a female dominant world – something that’s still poignant in this day and age of modern feminism. Flood, however, isn’t afraid – his return marks a reclaiming of patriarchy and masculinity. Religion, too, doesn’t escape unscathed. The construct of Saint Donna, formed through a dream and presented to Flood and the audience through an eccentric “sermon”, is obsessive and ridiculous, yet the girls follow blindly. It is the basis of their gang, their raison d’être.

Ghost From A Perfect Place is, therefore, an incredibly controversial and unsettling play. Opinions of this production will undoubtedly be split, as they were for the play’s premiere. But pornographic? Not here. Russell Bolam has directed the piece with subtlety and nuance, for a play that skirts the fringes of acceptability without stepping over the line. It provokes without being wholly distasteful. In part this is due to the use of comedy littered throughout the script. It’s black comedy to be sure, but it brings relief during moments of high tension, balancing light and shade.

More so it’s due to the well-realised characters, performed with conviction and sincerity by the talented cast. Feast amuses and frightens as the domineering, Michael Caine-esque Flood and Reid plays a lovely, bumbling Torchie. As you’d expect, though, it’s the three girls who dominate the production, throwing themselves wholeheartedly into their roles – Redford as the hyperactive Kerosene and Brookes as sidekick Sulphur. Hall especially stands out as Rio: sexy, empowered, yet vulnerable. Ghost From A Perfect Place is guaranteed to shock, but its imagery will have you questioning rather than squirming in your seat.


Watch: Ghost From A Perfect Place runs at the Arcola theatre until 11th October.

Monday 15 September 2014

U2 - Songs of Innocence

As if U2 weren’t already a massive joke in the music industry, the stealth release of their latest album through Apple has spawned a torrent of abuse and jokes.  Were they so worried it wouldn’t sell if they gave it away for free?  Is this really technological “engagement”?  In a time when the music industry and the internet already have a frosty relationship, it’s amusing that so many were horrified about the existence of a “free” album on their computers, little more than a virus.  Even Bono notedAnd for the people out there who have no interest in checking us out, look at it this way… the blood, sweat and tears of some Irish guys are in your junk mail”.  Nobody was more outraged than rapper Tyler the Creator though:


The initial wave of horror has since turned to disappointment by those who have actually listened to the album, rather than just dismissing it.  This might be a return to the early days of U2, but it’s not a return to their glory days.  This is a soulless rock record: bloodless, corporate.

That’s present in the limp, lifeless guitar lines; the plodding mid-tempo drums; Bono’s tired vocals - clearly his diaphragm isn’t what it used to be.  Volcano, for instance, sounds more like a gently oozing flow than an eruption and any genuine emotion on the soppy Song For Someone is swamped in beige.  Mostly the band are struggling to stay relevant, as they enlist pop producers Danger Mouse, Paul Epworth, Ryan Tedder and more, who lend a distinctly polished and glossy finish to the songs.  At best, this is a Coldplay-esque bore-fest.  From the “whoas and oohs” of opener The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone) to the gently chugging Every Breaking Wave and the light smattering of synths dotted throughout, this is an album enslaved to the mainstream, imprisoned by those (not so innocent) pearly white iDevices. 

Only Sleep Like A Baby Tonight dares to change up the sound with its pulsing synth bass and ends up sounding vaguely like a contemporary band, whilst Raised By Wolves does offer a sense of urgency with its screeching vocals, percussive breaths and calamitous drums.  It’s not enough though. 

And to take the Blake reference of the title, what exactly is so innocent, youthful or romantic about the album?  Or is that just a poetic reference to heighten the intellectual value?  Sure, the lyrical content is packed with references to the band’s beginnings – Cedarwood Road, for example, was Bono’s childhood address.  Yet the point of Blake’s Songs of Innocence is childhood vitality untainted by life.  If anything, U2’s album represents an ageing band looking back on their career through nothing but the eyes of experience and world weariness, Apple Inc. the crutch at their side.  “Soldier soldier, we know the world will never be the same” Bono sings on This Is Where You Can Reach Me Now.  Then again, this is an album that sounds like it’s performed by lambs, not by tigers.

What’s frustrating is that this isn’t an entirely bad album, but it’s far from their best and by no means justifies the elaborate release.  It’s about as essential as an iWatch.  Perhaps Bono et al are saving their best work for the album’s counterpart, ‘Songs of Experience’ – no doubt an album we’ll actually have to pay for.  ‘Songs of Innocence’ is little more than a viral vaccine for that follow-up.  Just press delete.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Every Breaking Wave
* Raised By Wolves
* Sleep Like A Baby Tonight

Listen: ‘Songs of Innocence’ is sat waiting patiently in your iTunes.  Unless you’ve deleted it already.

Let's just remember the glory days shall we?

Saturday 13 September 2014

New Pop Roundup

What's been tickling the earbuds this week?  Read on...

Kiesza - No Enemiesz

On her new single, Kiesza continues to put z's in weird places.  Sure, the name might be terrible but the chorus is superb as she euphorically belts "if we could all fall in love together..." over production that sounds like a throwback to the best 90s dance tracks.  It's got more lyrical content that Hideaway but sounds more distinct than Giant In My Heart, and that makes it her best single yet.


Listen: No Enemiesz will feature on her album 'Sound Of A Woman' released next year.

Tove Lo - Timebomb

We all know by now that Tove Lo can write a huge chorus.  Timebomb is her biggest yet.  The wordy, piano-led, Robyn-esque verses ("I couldn't decide if you were the most annoying human being I'd ever met or the best thing that ever happened") lead into a chorus that leaves you breathless.  Pushing back her album 'Queen Of The Clouds' until next year here in the UK (it's out everywhere else in September) is simply a crime against humanity.


Listen: Timebomb features on debut album 'Queen Of The Clouds' released next year in the UK.

Nick Gardner - Lose You

There's been a lot of chat about Nick Gardner this week, following both his new single hitting the web and a performance at the iTunes Festival supporting Maroon 5.  Quite the jump from a few popular YouTube videos.  The cheeky-faced singer (think Olly Murs meets Ryan Tedder) is being posed as the next big male popstar by many, but Lose You doesn't show him off to his best.  The fizzing electro production appeals, but his actually impressive vocal is drenched in robotic vocoder.  Only Phil Collins and Daft Punk can get away with that.  It leads to a song that just sounds like, well, Maroon 5.  A gold star to the iTunes Festival programming then.


Listen: Lose You is released in January 2015.

Damien Rice - My Favourite Faded Fantasy

This is the first taste of Rice's first album in eight years, a typical tale of heartbreak that begins politely with delicate acoustic fingerpicking and that pained falsetto.  So far, so Damien Rice.  Soon though it develops in a whirl of screeching guitars, powerful drums and orchestral strings.  Clearly he's been listening to some Jeff Buckley recently - no bad thing.  A stunning comeback.


Listen: The new album of the same name is released on 31st October.

Nick Jonas - Jealous

If you forget that this is a Jonas brother basically doing a Drake impression, then Jealous is actually a decent track.  "You're too sexy beautiful and everybody wants a taste / that's why I still get jealous" he croons over an electro R&B groove, clearly hacked off at that other guy making Drake hands at his girl.  It might not be original, but expect to see this riding high in the pop charts soon.


Listen: Jealous is available now in the US.

One Direction - Fireproof

Considering this was released as a free single and was downloaded 1.1m times in just 24 hours, chances are you've probably heard this.  You'll know, then, that the boys are increasingly taking themselves more seriously.  You'll know that it's taken from their unimaginatively titled (and Beyoncé copying) album 'Four'.  You'll know that the sound is very West Coast, with its chilled guitars and lush vocal harmonies (good luck singing it live).  And you'll know that it's probably their best single in a while, despite being a little dull.


Listen: 'Four' is released on 17th November.

Meghan Trainor - All About That Bass

If there's one thing that's guaranteed to be more annoying than a 1D record it's a novelty single.  All About That Bass is Trainor's ode to body image - all pro-[b]ass and anti skinny bitches.  As if female popstars haven't been singing about this since the beginning of time, it's all wrapped up in an irritating doo-wop sound with a sickly pastel shaded video that's only worth seeing for the brilliantly camp dancing guy.  No more of this please.


Listen: All About That Bass is released on 28th September.  For the love of God please don't buy it.

Well after that rubbish, let's end on a high.  So here's the new video from the ever-sophisticated Jessie Ware (album review coming soon)...

Simian Mobile Disco - Whorl

There's nothing like shaking up an established formula for inspiring creativity.  For their latest album, Simian Mobile Disco wrote the material in just three days before recording it live using analogue equipment, in the Californian desert.  It's not something you'd expect from a duo known for their polished dance music.

Knowing that, the sheer amount of material on 'Whorl' is an impressive feat.  And it's far from typical dance fare.  In a move away from rigid 4/4 beats, the tracks have an organic, almost improvised, feel as they slowly develop and bloom.  This is an album of space-age oblivion, hypnotic whirring synths and sweeping cinematic vistas, closer in style to Vangelis than anything the duo have done before.  It might have a retro feel with the use of analogue sequencers, but 'Whorl' never settles on pastiche.

It is, however, perhaps a little unrefined.  Its length leads to repetition, with some tracks in need of a trim.  For all its nagging melodies and technological effects, too often the duo rest on mesmeric atmospherics and effervescence that quickly dissipates.  After a while you'll need a break from the gloom, though you'll be compelled to jump back in - particularly for the latter half.

As you'd expect from the live recording, 'Whorl' is structured like a live DJ set - stick with it for the better tracks.  After a strong opening of orbital ambience (Redshift and Dandelion Spheres), the album sags in the middle with the cosmic monotony of Z Space and the ominous Nazard.  Later the album shifts gears as the beats get heavier.  Calyx offers up futuristic disco, Jam Side Up is a particularly satisfying, bubbling concoction, and trance-like lead single Tangents is the closest 'Whorl' gets to familiar dance music.  Casiopeia then flips the sound on its head with an abstract and almost disturbing piece of sound design.  The aliens have finally landed.

For the most part, 'Whorl' forms the background music to some wildly dystopian sci-fi film.  It's an intriguing experiment that makes for a fascinating listen, but it remains background music all the same.  Perhaps the duo will do a Daft Punk and expand their career into film music.  'Whorl' is certainly a step in that direction.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Calyx
* Jam Side Up
* Tangents

Listen: 'Whorl' is available now.

Othello @ The Drayton Arms

As one of Shakespeare's most direct and lucid plays (narratively speaking at least), as well as its still relevant themes of manipulation and racism, Othello is ripe for reinterpretation and adaptation.

This production from Clatterhouse Theatre, directed by Eliot Langsdon, envisages Venice as a present day London casino.  In this seedy underworld, omniscient croupier Iago manipulates his manager Othello, whilst Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca are a trio of vampish jazz-singing femme fatales - Lynchian objects of desire.  It's a setting that heightens the theme of corruption, Iago gambling with the hearts of others.  And with its techno soundtrack, this is a modern and original take on Shakespeare.

It's a shame, then, that the characterisation is so flat.  The opening scenes feel a little confused as the plot settles into the setting, the characters fail to excite, and the acting is plagued with a lack of clarity when delivering Shakespeare's lines - a crime worse than cheating at poker.  Within this, Felicity McCormack's Desdemona initially stands out, speaking her lines with lucidity and projection.

Eventually the production hits its stride and settles into a dramatic rhythm, particularly in the second half, offering a stylish and tense thriller.  The strong-willed Emilia (Kate Cooper) and the bumbling Roderigo (Max Upton) are especially well-considered characters.

Mostly, things pick up with Ben Kavanagh's Iago, the other actors forced to rise to his level.  Though initially worried that this baby-faced actor could succeed as the snake-tongued villain, this was in fact a very clever piece of casting - his Iago lives up to the moniker "honest Iago", a man you would never suspect.  It's in his fourth wall breaking asides and monologues that he reveals his true eccentric self, offering comedy, charm and a deliciously clipped vocal delivery.  His is a Machiavellian, perhaps even psychopathic, villain you can't help but love.

The play may be titled Othello, but it's Iago who time and again proves to be the more interesting character.  As such, despite its flaws, this production delivers a fine adaptation of the core play.


Watch: Othello runs at the Drayton Arms Theatre until the 27th September.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Ryan Adams - Ryan Adams

Anyone who knows me knows that if there's one band I can't stand, it's Oasis.  Just...don't get me started.

Ryan Adams, however, managed the impossible: thanks to him I actually like an Oasis song.  His cover of Wonderwall from his 2004 album 'Love Is Hell' turns an incessant piece of Brit-pop rubbish into evocative heartbreak.

Judging by Spotify plays, that cover is by a considerable distance his most popular track, but it's just one gem in a vast career spanning fourteen albums - that's practically one a year since his 2000 debut and including this self-titled release.  Adams has always stretched his bluesy country rock, but unlike 2011's mostly acoustic 'Ashes & Fire', this new material returns to a heavier rock sound.

Of all the tracks on 'Ryan Adam's, it's Kim that comes closest to the emotional sucker-punch of Wonderwall.  Lamenting a past relationship, he gruffly spits "Walking down the street I watched you walk away / To be with him, Kim"; the guitar solo that follows is literally the sound of heartbreak.  Lyrically, too, this is typical of Ryan Adams and, indeed, 'Ryan Adams'.

What's always impressed with Adams is his ability to straddle genres.  Ever melodic, his music has an immediacy appropriate for mainstream tastes.  Gimme Something Good opens the album in emphatic style that continues with the likes of Stay With Me and Feels Like Fire, all based on identifiable guitar riffs.  Sadly My Wrecking Ball is not related to the Miley Cyrus classic, but it's a beautiful country ballad all the same.

Simultaneously, his music sounds authentic - all whiskey-soaked gruff vocals, flange guitars and downbeat lyrics.  On 'Ryan Adams' he's found a balance between the different elements of his style, delivering acoustic ballads alongside heavier, uptempo rock tracks.  It's consistent in itself and consistent within his career - fans will be happy.

It's that consistency and authenticity that's so appealing, in a retro, warm hug sort of way.  Few artists are making music like this anymore (not even John Mayer), but Adams keeps on plugging away regardless.  In a world of hyperstylised electronic pop, he provides a gritty, palatable antithesis.  His steadfastness is admirable.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Kim
* My Wrecking Ball
* Stay With Me

Listen: 'Ryan Adams' is available now.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Jhené Aiko - Souled Out

The Weeknd, Drake and Frank Ocean have a lot to answer for - they're responsible for sparking the current trend for futuristic R&B that's been growing over the last few years.

It's a trend that's now filtered down to female artists, including the likes of Banks, FKA Twigs and Dawn Richards.  And where the genre has always been big on explicit content and sexuality, the girls have twisted typical male misogyny into their own distinct brands of sexy - Twigs especially.

So where does LA singer-songwriter Jhene Aiko fit in?  Her debut album 'Souled Out' is essentially what Rihanna's album would be if she were to go down a more experimental route.  Aiko's sound has a pop-friendly slant whilst remaining progressive; vocally her sultry, nasal purrs bare resemblance to the Bajan singer.  Lyrically, too, they share a certain aggressive attitude: "have you seen my fucks to give? I have none", Aiko sings on The Pressure.  She's even similarly open about her penchant for smoking pot.

Aiko isn't all cold metallics though.  For sure, tracks like To Love & Die and Lyin King feature the clipped beats, moody synths and autotuned vocals that have become hallmarks of the futuristic R&B genre.  She's undoubtedly capable of delivering a sombre, smoky atmosphere of subtly aggressive, weed-soaked lyrics.  Elsewhere - as the album title implies - there are more soulful elements.  W.A.Y.S opens with a relaxed guitar riff; Spotless Mind similarly includes laidback guitars; and The Pressure is a sensual funk-jam.  It leads to an album that's warm, sensual and blissful.

Aiko is at her best on these slinky, soulful tracks.  Yet even then she lacks the individuality of her contemporaries.  She even copies Beyoncé and Mariah by including vocals from her daughter on Promises - and nobody wants to be upstaged by a child.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Spotless Mind
* Lyin King
* The Pressure

Listen: 'Souled Out' is available now.

Monday 8 September 2014

Calvin Harris feat. John Newman - Blame

Yes, it's another dance "banger" featuring the chalkboard vocals of John Newman.  And it's nowhere near as good as Rudimental's Feel The Love.

Yes, Harris knows his way around a chart hit. And shock horror, this one has a GUITAR in it.

But there's no denying this is Calvin Harris by numbers.  And coming from a self-styled soul singer and a producer known for his euphoric sounds, this is as soulless and empty as the endlessly repeated Royal Baby jokes that have hit the web today alongside Blame.

No doubt it's a surefire number one hit then...


Listen: Blame is available now.

Saturday 6 September 2014

Briefs: The Second Coming @ London Wonderground

I have never seen anything like this before.  And I possibly never will again.

That's because this is a totally unique experience.  In what other show would you be likely to see circus acts and boylesque mixed with bizarre humour, yo-yo tricks, fierce drag lip-synching and the strangest "dog" act you're ever likely to see?

This is Briefs: The Second Coming, an all-male cabaret show from Australia that's stranger, more perverse and more outrageous than you can imagine - in the best possible way.  MC'd by the ever-amusing "bearded Aussie drag queen" Shivannah (a.k.a creative producer Fez Faanana), the audience is introduced to a whole host of bizarre acts that surprise, amuse and arouse in equal measure.  No other show glitters in the same way.

At times the humour is pushed a little too far - the aforementioned "dog" sequence in particular.  And out of the six-strong cast, a couple of the acts don't quite hit the target.  Whilst Dallas Dellaforce's lip-synching is full of attitude (and her costume design is immaculate), she acts as more of an interlude between the more physical performers.  Then there's the crazy simian comedy of Adam Krandle (the "evil hate monkey") - definitely the marmite act, sometimes reducing the show to crudeness.

Look past the trashy humour and niche camp, though, and there are some truly spectacular standout moments.  The twinkling smile of Louis Biggs is ever-charming throughout his routines, which include some impressive yo-yo work and hat juggling.  Circus performer Thomas Worral provides a stunning opening to the show, smouldering through an aerial hoop routine with effortless skill that sets the bar to an impossibly high standard.  He was matched by Mark Winmill ("Captain Kidd"), whose trapeze bird-bath act was muscular yet graceful and left the front two rows drenched.

What's most impressive about Briefs, though, is the balance between physical skill and humour throughout the show, each act delivered with sass, camp and sensuality.  It's that concoction that makes Briefs so sexy.


Watch: Briefs: The Second Coming runs until the end of September at the London Wonderground.

Friday 5 September 2014

Kleerup feat. Susanne Sundfør - Let Me In

Swedish producer Kleerup is still probably best known as the man behind Robyn's phenomenal hit With Every Heartbeat - in the English speaking world at least.  Let Me In will feature on the first of two mini-albums released this year and next, which follow his 2012 debut 'Aniara'.

Where Robyn's track is drenched in melancholy, Let Me In is a far darker, sexier affair.  Its funky, 80s strutting bassline is reminiscent of Frankie Goes To Hollywood's Relax, rumbling beneath grand kaleidoscopic synths and a dreamy vocal from Susanne Sundfør (a Norwegian singer-songwriter whose own moody solo material is excellent, as well as collaborations with Röyksopp and M83. She was also a backing singer for Björk!).

Needless to say this is a stomping, emphatic return that should be representative of a brilliant couple of albums.


Listen: Let Me In will feature on the mini-album 'As If We Never Won' released on October 13th..

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Maroon 5 - V

I was expecting to hate 'V', the unimaginatively titled fifth album from Californian band Maroon 5.  After all, they're one of the biggest bands to sell-out: they used to sound like this, but now this has become their default.

It's safe to say, then, that Maroon 5 are no longer the soulful soft-rock band they once were.  But perhaps they should be applauded for their risk taking.  After all, heard in its own right, 'V' is a perfectly enjoyable electro-pop album.

As the neon cover art suggests, 'V' is a more synth-heavy album than in the past.  Ballad Unkiss Me, for instance, comprises twinkling synths, a rumbling bass and handclap beat.  For the most part, electro-funk has become the band's standard, whether on the laidback Sugar, the almost dubstep inflected Coming Back For You, or disco track Feelings, in essence combining their old and new styles.

The Maroon 5 of old does crop up now and again.  In simple terms, guitars are frequent throughout, but specifically Leaving California harks back to the likes of She Will Be Loved in its melodic construction.  And on the deluxe version, singer Adam Levine does his best Paolo Nutini impression on the bluesy Sex and Candy.  It sounds out of place here though - you can't have it both ways.

The electronic feel mostly stems from the incessant and perpetually grating autotune used on Levine's voice.  Introduced in annoying fashion on Payphone, it continues on current single Maps and throughout 'V'.  On ballad New Love it reaches a new level, from its monotonous verse melodies to its high-flying chorus.  It's as if the songs are being sung by a robot, which is not only absurd but acts as a barrier to any emotional connection to the songs.  Gwen Stefani, notably, is not given the same treatment when she features on My Heart Is Open.  We know from the past that Levine is capable of more.

Not that these songs are particularly deep.  The album comprises a series of banal love songs with shallow lyrics.  The lyrical conceit of Unkiss Me is just awkward, whilst In Your Pocket revolves around the line "show me yours, I'll show you mine" - is that really a phone in your pocket?  The frequent use of explicit words, meanwhile, feels forced and negates the band's mainstream status.

What elevates the music, however, is the band's ability to write a catchy riff and a nagging hook.  As an album of chart-friendly, immediately appealing pop music, 'V' is perfectly perfunctory.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Sugar
* Coming Back For You
* Feelings

Listen: 'V' is available now.