Saturday 29 November 2014

Olly Murs - Never Been Better

Olly Murs Never Been Better

"Did you miss me?" Murs asks on the opening track of the same name.  Well, not particularly Olly.  He's undoubtedly one of the most successful X Factor contestants with a string of hits, but his music has mostly been forgettable despite his cheeky persona.

The title of this fourth album doesn't lie though.  This is his strongest and most consistent album to date, taking us on a tour of current trends.  Funky opener Did You Miss Me? sets the tone with its bubbling bass and horn fanfares; it's followed by current single Wrapped Up that cements Murs as the British answer to Bruno Mars.  It's on these feelgood, upbeat numbers that he's most comfortable, horns and piano covering up his limited vocal range - the title track and the sexually-charged Can't Say No in particular.  He also explores dance music: Why Do I Love You and We Still Love both feature catchy trip-hop beats, whilst Stick With Me is Avicii meets Clean Bandit, all country guitars, strings and heavy beats.

That's not the only country-inspired track; Up, the love duet with Demi Lovato, is clearly aimed towards a US market, lacking the sense of British cool that's stamped across the rest of the album.  Yet after the success of the last album's Dear Darlin', Murs has learnt to deliver a ballad with sincerity.  Nothing Without You and Hope You Got What You Came For both start simply enough, but soon develop into soaring ballads that reveal a truth and honesty beneath that cheeky chappy exterior.

Then there's the 1975-esque soft rock of Beautiful To Me on which Murs stretches his vocal range on anthemic melodies, whilst Seasons blends funk guitars and beats with sparse, edgy production.  Murs may have recently admitted in a BBC interview that he doesn't wish to innovate in his music, but 'Never Been Better' proves that when he pushes the boundaries beyond his usual Bruno Mars/Robbie Williams soul-inflected pop sound, the results can be successful.

Some may be surprised that Murs has made it this far to a fourth album, least of all himself.  Musically, this isn't the most original album around and it lacks a real standout single to mark Murs as a superstar, but with fun and enjoyable songs to match his personality, he's certainly heading in the right direction.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Did You Miss Me?
* Stick With Me
* Can't Say No

Listen: 'Never Been Better' is available now.

Friday 28 November 2014

Sleeping Booty @ The Leicester Square Theatre

Sleeping Booty The Leicester Square Theatre

I’m not a fan of panto.

There, I’ve said it.  Bah humbug.  Rehashing the same fairytale stories each year with a heavy dose of silly childish humour is not really my idea of fun.

Throw in some sexual innuendo, however, and you’re more on my wavelength.  Add some filthy jokes, hilarious cultural references and a fair amount of swearing, and you’ve got yourself an adult panto.  But if that tickles your fancy, then make sure you see Sleeping Booty at the Leicester Square Theatre.  It’s not for the faint-hearted.

Writer and director Stuart Saint retains all the usual panto tropes, but cranks up the xxx rating.  Our fairy narrator is the sexualised Fairy Muff; the slop scene involves some embarrassing audience participation (not to mention some earlier twerking); there’s a variety dance routine with bells on; and the traditional sing-along has some…updated lyrics.  It’s rude, crude and camp as Christmas.

The less you know about the show the better, but the (loose) plot involves the gangsta rapping princess Booty and her quest for the biggest prick in the land (and I don’t mean a spinning wheel).  She’s aided by Fairy Muff, Prince Willie Wontie (himself on a mission to regain the affections of his love Punani) and You Look Familiar (multiple roles), but of course they’re thwarted by The Evil Mangelina and her arse-isstant Tit-Bit.  The narrative barely follows the original and is totally lost, but who cares when the silly fun and biting contemporary references are so damn hilarious?

The performances contain plenty of ad-libbing, with consistently funny jokes and excellent comic timing.  The bootyful Alice Marshall is utterly engaging as Booty, spitting out rapid-fire rhymes and slut-dropping with gay abandon (even if her booty could use a touch of Kardashian padding).  Paula Masterton’s Fairy Muff does most of the legwork when it comes to the singing and whilst her vocals are strong, the song choices are a little outdated.  So too is drag queen Miss Dusty O’s schtick.  She certainly serves up some Disney villain realness as Mangelina, but her entrance to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance is very 2000-and-late and her jokes feel overly scripted, often missing the mark.  She’s totally upstaged by the sassy Tit-Bit in amusing dinosaur onesie – with her facial expressions and comical dancing, Rachael Born is a hoot to watch.  Leon Scott improvises well as the Prince, and Alexander Beck balances multiple characters with ease.

If there’s one major positive about panto, it gives actors a chance to let their hair down and have some fun in the face of yet another piece of ‘serious’ theatre.  When the cast are enjoying it, the audience will too and it’s clear that the cast of Sleeping Booty are having an absolute whale of a time.  The result?  I laughed my titbits off.


Watch: Sleeping Booty runs at the Leicester Square Theatre until 17th January.

Photographer: Marc Abe

Thursday 27 November 2014

Theatre Uncut @ The Soho Theatre

Theatre Uncut The Soho Theatre

‘Theatre Uncut’ is a remarkable project.  It’s an annual event that invites young playwrights to write a new short play as a response to a specific theme based on current affairs.  Not only are these performed together in one evening, but the scripts are posted online for people to read and perform internationally, creating something of a global theatrical dialogue.

This year’s theme is “Knowledge is Power. Knowledge is Change”.  Clearly this can be interpreted in a number of ways, leading to five very distinct plays.  Some are all encompassing, others more focused.  Together, they reflect our current society as an often absurd dystopia.  Performed by a superb four-strong cast, with a cleverly designed set and pulsing electronic musical theme between each play, it’s as if watching a TV show of short scenes – like a stage version of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.

With only 10-15 minutes to fill, these plays take on an abstract, poetic feel in order to get their point across.  This leads to some especially creative thinking in terms of form and tone, allowing each playwright to experiment in microcosm.  Some are more successful than others, but all five plays are gripping and well-constructed. 

A couple are perhaps a little heavy-handed.  Ira Provitt and The Man from Hayley Squires, for example, provides a tough and serious end to the performance.  Focusing on the theme of education, it involves an older education minister being questioned by his own conscious, taking the form of a young man.  The argument between them is intense and explores differing views on the future of education, but it lacks the subtle finesse of the earlier pieces.  Vivienne Franzmann’s The Most Horrific, looks at the role of the media, its sensationalism and voyeurism.  Particularly effective are the attempts at humour by a fledgling stand-up comedian, though her jokes reel off a whole list of horrific global and personal issues.  That said, it does feel at times like an exhortation, and the juxtaposition with a couple at home watching the news isn’t always clear.

What links the first three plays is a great sense of black humour.  Anders Lustgarten’s The Finger of God uses the National Lottery to mock class divides and the benefits system.  The privileged organisers of the lottery sip wine over a posh meal – numbers of lottery players are down so they decide to impose punishments on those who take part to, paradoxically, encourage more people to play.  The lower classes, however, play along despite the danger: desperate, addicted and used as sport as bizarre as the Hunger Games.  Inua Ellams ridicules bedroom tax in Reset Everything.  Thrown together into a single room, the various characters represent the differing views of social issues (the spiritual problem, the personal problem, the political problem), whilst the bomb in the centre reflects a desire to rid ourselves of such over-complication and start afresh.  Then there’s Clara Brennan’s PACHAMAMA that balls together all the world’s problems into a cosmic, cataclysmic disaster – imposing, inescapable and thrilling.

Not only do these plays highlight major world issues, the use of humour adds a layer of subtlety, enjoyment and tangibility.  Rather than preaching about problems, we can therefore take a step back and see how absurd they are in the first place.  None of the five plays offers a solution, but they provide a thought-provoking starting point for further discussion.


Watch: ‘Theatre Uncut’ runs in London at the Soho Theatre until 30th November, before continuing its UK tour into December.

Pictures courtesy of Jeremy Abrahams.

Röyksopp - The Inevitable End

Röyksopp The Inevitable End

‘The Inevitable End’ is the Norwegian duo’s fifth and final album, but it’s less a fond farewell and more a dying breath.  As the title suggests, it’s an album drenched in overwhelming melancholy, an album that sonically embraces death.

It’s miles away from the playful joie de vivre of previous releases like ‘Melody AM’ and ‘Junior’.  Tracks like Sordid Affair, Save Me and I Had This Thing certainly have a sense of dance floor euphoria, but they’re the exception.  The titles alone indicate the dejection at the core of the album, only emphasised by lyrics like “this sordid affair is ending in tears” and “I brought this house down on myself”.  And they’re not the worst.  It all begins with opener Skulls that instils a sense of ominous death with its menacing, bubbling synths; later there’s the defeatist You Know I Have To Go that features a flat auto-tuned vocal and sombre wisps of melody for seven and a half minutes; the piano-led Running To The Sea sounds like an ode to suicide; and the penultimate track is named Coup De Grace which you wish would come a little sooner.  There’s even a track called Rong that simply repeats the line “what the f*ck is wrong with you” over and over, as if the duo are banging their heads against a brick wall.

What did go wrong?  Why is this album so oppressively sad?  As you’d expect from Röyksopp, the production is impeccable: impossibly elastic basslines; synths pinging like droplets in space; everything polished and crafted with immense precision.  This isn’t cold and robotic electronic music; there’s a warmth and humanity that oozes from every beat, making the album all the more heart-shattering.  Yet rarely has this genre sounded so downbeat and bleak.  Whilst some of their previous material has a darker energy that maintains a sense of urgency, ‘The Inevitable End’ is joyless.  As an exploration of musical depression it’s definitely a success, but if saying goodbye is so difficult, why say goodbye at all?

The second track is a remix of Monument, a track that featured on their collaborative EP with Robyn ‘Do It Again’ earlier this year.  Yet where, in its original incarnation, the track is a pensive opener that contrasts with the glorious title track, it’s clear now the duo won’t be doing it again anytime soon.  “This will be my monument, this will be a beacon when I’m gone” she sings, though if Röyksopp leave behind any legacy, it won’t be this album.  They are a duo who will be remembered for giving life to the likes of Eple, The Girl And The Robot and Only This Moment, not for self-destructing in their final hour.


Gizzle’s Choice:
Save Me
I Had This Thing

Listen: ‘The Inevitable End’ is available now.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

David Guetta - Listen

French DJ/Producer/Destroyer of music David Guetta has stated that his latest (sixth) album ‘Listen’ is his most personal to date, constructed from actual acoustic songs rather than just beats.  As the title suggests, he’s demanding we actually listen this time – not with our feet, but with our ears.

Not that you could tell much of that by listening.  Mostly, this is the same old polished EDM that you’ve either come to love or loathe.  What I did for Love and Listen both start as piano-led ballads but Guetta soon slaps his trademark donk across them.  And some songs even contain, shock horror, A GUITAR.  Yet each and every song disintegrates into ravey synths with a beat that’s permanently stuck four to the floor.  It’s simply laughable how many songwriters it’s taken per song to come up with this.


As you’d expect, there are countless collaborators and featured vocalists: from the obvious (Sia, Ryan Tedder), to the plain dull (Emeli Sandé, The Script), to the bizarre (Ladysmith Black Mambazo).  There’s certainly a broad global flavour to ‘Listen’ – Lift me up pairs the aforementioned African group with Norwegian duo Nico & Vinz; No Money no Love brings together hip hop artists from Sweden and the UK (Elliphant and Ms. Dynamite – the former a rising star, the latter resuscitating her dying career); and other songs bring together artists from the US, the UK and across Europe.

Yet none of these collaborators are able to push Guetta out of his comfort zone.  It’s telling that he wrote most of the album himself first before inviting singers to ‘listen’; they arrived too late to make their own mark and deviate from Guetta’s formula.  That his formula is so repetitively formulaic is almost impressive, but it leads to a monotonous album of, you guessed it…


Only Nicki Minaj is able to break the mould on Hey Mama, with its hard-hitting beat that deviates from the usual pattern and rapped verses.  Finally a collaboration that feels equal, even if it’s far from the best work from either artist. 

The odd track is certainly palatable (this is no Calvin Harris album).  At the very least Guetta knows how to write a hook.  Previous single Lovers on the Sun has a welcome country vibe (courtesy of Avicii); current single Dangerous has a dangerously funky bassline; the African air of Lift me up adds a lightness of touch to Guetta’s typical euphoria; and both John Legend and Sia provide excellent vocals on Listen and Bang my Head respectively. 

Dancing is expected, then, but in Sia’s words actually listening to ‘Listen’ may well cause you to bang your head against a wall.



Gizzle’s Choice:
* Dangerous
* Lovers on the Sun
* Lift me up

Listen: ‘Listen’ is available now.

Assassins @ The Menier Chocolate Factory

If there’s one musical theatre composer who’s able to subvert expectations, it’s Sondheim – the man who can tell a story backwards, explore relationships with brutal honesty, reveal the darker side of childhood fairytales and find humour in a pair of serial killers.

Assassins, then, is no different.  Who else could eke out sympathy from America’s most notorious killers?  The likes of John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, John Hinckley and Lee Harvey Oswald are brought together like some grim murderous family, the show detailing the hits and misses of various assassination attempts on US Presidents.  It’s a satire of the American Dream that gives voice to the unheard, to those whom America has failed and de-humanised.  In Sondheim’s words, “everybody’s got the right”.  Through its mockery of traditional American band music (and one of Sondheim’s most tuneful scores), we find truth, honesty and injustice in a series of psychotic, maniacal characters.  Watching Harry Morrison’s madly devoted Hinckley (obsessed with actress Jodie Foster) and Carly Bawden’s Lynette Fromme (lover to Charles Manson) singing the beautiful “Unworthy Of Your Love” to their respective loves prior to committing murder is as unhinged as Sweeney singing to his razors. 

There are more time travel anomalies than a Christopher Nolan film, but the various disparate parts are held together by a circus theme (“you wanna shoot a President?”) as well as the fictional Proprietor (a muscly Simon Lipkin with clown paint dripping down his face and a target on his back), a banjo playing hill-billy Balladeer (Jamie Parker), and a small ensemble of bystanders representing the general public.  It’s madness, but it works.  Soutra Gilmour’s set for this production continues the deranged and grimy circus theme: monologues are delivered from a dodgem car; the cast crawl over a huge clown head forlornly left on its side; and overbearing hit and miss signs light up after each gunshot.  The use of blood red confetti also provides some powerful imagery.

It’s true that, whilst the performances are all wonderfully twisted, some characters are given more stage time than others.  John Wilkes Booth is meant to be the leader of the group, but the pretty-voiced Aaron Tveit doesn’t quite have the stage presence – particularly by comparison to Lipkin’s burly Proprietor who is the real controller of the drama.  Andy Nyman is a playful yet uncontrollable Guiteau (who looks more than a little like Sondheim himself); David Roberts plays a touching, quietly mournful Czolgosz with a resonant bass voice; Stewart Clarke’s Giuseppe Zangara is suitably psychotic in his early number (but is overall underused); and the pairing of comedian Catherine Tate and Bawden as Sarah Jane Moore and Lynette Fromme is full of laugh-out loud black comedy.  Mike McShane also brings humour into his lengthy monologues as the Santa imitating Samuel Byck, in which Sondheim pokes fun at his old collaborator Leonard Bernstein.  The ensemble, however, are largely unnecessary – there simply isn’t enough for them to do, detracting from what is otherwise a taut character drama.  Their penultimate number “Something Just Broke” saps all the tension out of a glorious climax.

If Byck’s story of hijacking a plane tells us anything, though, it’s how much Sondheim’s musical still resonates with a modern audience (its premiere was in 1990).  There’s plenty of humour in this dark satire, yet for all its psychotic performances and cleverly fantastical directorial touches from Jamie Lloyd, there is a frightening realism bristling beneath the surface.


Watch: Assassins runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 7th March.

Photograph: Nobby Clark

Monday 24 November 2014

Blackout @ The Hope Theatre

The goal of many alcoholics is the blackout – the point at which drinking leads to memory loss.  But what leads someone to that state?  Why would they choose to self-harm?

This piece of verbatim theatre follows the same structure as the recovery process, beginning with frenzied chaos.  The five performers dizzyingly cross the stage speaking their fractured lines over one another.  It’s confusing, but it reflects the giddy rush of excitement of getting drunk, of not knowing where you’ll wake up after the blackout.  It’s also very amusing – listening to the various anecdotes, it makes you wonder what’s so bad about alcohol after all?

That soon comes.  The next act brings a change of character: violence, abuse, rape.  Here we witness five people struggling to take control, wrestling with denial and deluding themselves until the point of rock-bottom.  Recovery does come, but it doesn’t come easily.  When reality hits, it’s all too easy to switch to another vice.  Sobriety is tough when dealing with life’s tragedies leading to a lack of self-confidence.  Recovery is ultimately positioned as a spiritual awakening: whether having faith in God, some other higher power, or simply finding positivity in humanity.

In fact, positivity is the overall message of Blackout.  This is a play fuelled by hope, presenting an honest, powerful and truthful vision of life as an alcoholic.

However, what it gains in verisimilitude, it lacks in drama.  With the piece scripted entirely from interviews with recovering alcoholics (including lead writer Mark Jeary himself, who also performs), it sometimes feels more like watching an AA meeting than an actual play.  Lighting and choreographed movement do add a sense of theatricality, but mostly dramatic issues lie in the presentation of character, despite some excellent physical and emotional performances.  With overlaying stories, individual characters become difficult to discern and are underveloped – some are far stronger than others.  More so, the characters may touch on tragedy in their speeches, but the overall positive message gives them an air of invincibility.  One character doesn't survive, but he’s quickly forgotten.  Ironically enough for a verbatim piece, the characters feel more like a collection of quotes than human.

On an educational level, though, Blackout certainly works as a thought-provoking piece.  It may be performed in a pub, but I steered well clear of any alcoholic drinks.


Watch: Blackout runs at the Hope Theatre until 6th December.

Saturday 22 November 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part 1) (2014) - Francis Lawrence

Let's face it, the third book in the series is the worst.  Stripping the story of the titular games, the narrative dawdles in the newly discovered District 13 whilst author Suzanne Collins makes some questionable choices.  Losing what makes the story unique, it just becomes another teen dystopian novel.

Yet again, though, film director Francis Lawrence has improved upon the novel in subtle ways.  Mostly, that's down to the performance of Jennifer Lawrence.  She embodies Katniss Everdeen perfectly: conflicted, struggling to deal with a traumatic past, and unable to cope with the pressures of leadership, whilst remaining strong-willed throughout.  The director has the confidence to simply let the camera linger, her face doing the storytelling.

The decision to split the film in two, though, is perhaps unnecessary.  It certainly allows for a remarkable level of faithful detail, but it does drag with a lack of action.  This is a film of preparation.  Waking up in District 13 led by President Coin (Julianne Moore), Katniss finds herself on the side of the rebels who are determined to use her Mockingjay image as a symbol for their uprising.  Aided by the piercing blue eyes of childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and various newcomers (including Game of Thrones actress Natalie Dormer as Cressida), she records videos out in the warring districts to inspire the rebellion.

Peeta, meanwhile, has been captured by President Snow in the Capitol and is being manipulated as a weapon against Katniss; interviews with host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) are broadcast across the country to counter the rebels.  This, then, is a war of words - sombre and pensive, with only Elizabeth Banks' eccentric Effie Trinkett providing the slightest dash of comedy.  Where the first films were a morbid satire on celebrity culture, Mockingjay explores the power of media, image and propaganda with a melancholic score to match.  The outcome of that is almost entirely saved for Part 2, so it's impossible to critique this as a standalone film.

This dark, dystopian tale has captured the minds of a generation.  Whilst the plot and characters alone are intriguing, this third film lends a level of visual realism that transcends the fantasy of the novels.  The series may have started as Twilight fan fiction, but this is a far more pertinent narrative than the love lives of vampires.  As Katniss visits the destroyed District 12 or the war-torn District 8, the images have a disturbing sense of verisimilitude.  This could be Iraq, or Syria, or any other modern war zone.  It might be set in the future, but Collins' story is utterly relevant to a society all too used to seeing war imagery across the media.  That's something that Lawrence's film only heightens.

Lastly, a quick word about the soundtrack: buy it.

No really.  You'd be hard-pressed to actually hear any of the songs used in the film but it's more than just a marketing tool, it's also one of the best albums of the year.  Curated by Lorde (and featuring a handful of new, original songs from her including lead track Yellow Flicker Beat), the album is essentially a list of the coolest people in contemporary pop: Chvrches, Tinashé, Ariana Grande, Tove Lo, Raury, Bat for Lashes, Miguel, Major Lazer and more.  There's even a track from Grace Jones.  And these aren't just throwaway singles; the mostly downbeat and gloomy sounds are equally suited to the film and today's charts.  It's a soundtrack as relevant as the film itself.


Watch: Mockingjay (Part 1) is out now.
Listen: The soundtrack is also out now.

Friday 21 November 2014

One Direction - Four

The long hair.  The black outfits.  The sullen attitude.

In the world of 1D, growing up means acting like rock stars.  And the five-piece boyband have done a lot of growing up over their four album career: from the cheesy escapades of What Makes You Beautiful, to the 80s soft rock of current single Steal My Girl that fittingly wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack to coming-of-age film The Breakfast Club.

‘Four’ sees the boys dropping the 60s inspired pop of their past albums for an 80s guitar sound.  That’s a change that we’ve all seen coming gradually, for better or worse.  Diana was one of the highlights of the last album and the best of 'Four' follows suit.  Yet those who bemoaned the Mumford-esque balladry of ‘Midnight Memories’ won’t find much to enjoy on insipid love songs like Ready to Run, Fools Gold, Night Changes and the Ed Sheeran bore-fest 18.  Too often, the album coasts along on mediocre tracks on which the boys take themselves far too seriously.  You can’t begrudge them for at least writing their own material, but equally you wish they’d lighten up a bit.

And lighten up they do, on occasion.  They might be aiming towards rock stardom, but the music remains grounded in their pop roots and it’s here where the album succeeds.  Steal My Girl is as catchy a lead single as they’ve ever released, whilst Where Do Broken Hearts Go features a pop-rock shout-along chorus, Fireproof takes a more laidback approach with its West Coast harmonies, and Spaces is a typical boyband ballad flavoured with guitars that perfectly represents where the band are currently at.  Best of all is Stockholm Syndrome with its infectious syncopation and driving guitars – as with Taylor Swift’s latest album, it successfully updates 80s pop with a contemporary edge.  That this song (as well as Where Do Broken Hearts Go) was co-written solely by Harry Styles (Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson co-wrote most of the album alongside other pop songwriters) just proves which member has the most personality.  Maybe they should listen to Styles more often?

As the unimaginative album title suggests, ‘Four’ is hardly an original album.  The 80s style alone is nothing new, the opening of Ready to Run is pure Avicii, the guitar lines in Change Your Tickets are practically identical to Girls from The 1975, and Act My Age weirdly combines a hoedown with dub-step.  Other songs often sound like rehashed versions of old singles, but if anything it adds up to the most cohesive and complete 1D album to date.  Yet where Beyoncé’s album of the same name was full of singles, here many of the tracks fail to stand out.

With all the reports of separate transportation, fights and illness, many are predicting the imminent demise of 1D.  They’re undoubtedly best known for their overall brand and their ability to induce hysteria and pant-wetting in young girls rather than their music, but it’s clear the boys wish to change that.  1D may be a tired boyband, but musically they’re just hitting their stride.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Steal My Girl
* Fireproof
* Stockholm Syndrome

Listen: ‘Four’ is available now.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Hokes Bluff - Action Hero @ Shoreditch Town Hall

Where are the American accents?

For a show all about American sports and the American Dream, this absence is a strange choice.  It lends the show an air of polite Britishness that is at odds with the brash nature of America the cast are trying to replicate.  It’s one of many oversights that nags from start to finish.

In Hokes Bluff performance company Action Hero attempt to explore the conventions of American teen sports dramas, but seem to have left out the drama bit.  Instead of presenting a traditional narrative, they instead meditate on the troubles and pressures of an underdog sportsman.  This mostly takes the form of lengthy monologues, the action controlled by an onstage referee.  The monologues themselves consist of endless lists of words that sound convincing, but somewhat labour the point.  As motivational speeches, they lack that over the top nature that comes from America’s almost religious devotion to sport.  Instead, we’re lulled into the hypnotic, downbeat mindset of a generic sportsman that fails to excite: from the lack of visual interest, to the monotone delivery of lines.

The use of music is excellent in stirring atmosphere, whether accompanying a (supposedly) erotic changing scene with Major Lazer’s Get Free, blasting out a bit of Rihanna at full volume, or simply providing mood.  Yet Action Hero rely on the music to create emotion; the performances alone are flat and vacuous.  Not even dressing up as a tiger mascot can inject some urgency by comparison to the opening synths of We Found Love.

What’s more, what relevance does this have to a British audience?  Much of our understanding of these sports and American culture comes from cinema, but whilst Hokes Bluff strives to be cinematic, it fails to comment on the clichés these films employ.

There’s certainly some comedy in the piece.  Those endless lists are full of amusing place names and American stereotypes; the referee’s increasingly frenzied motions are particularly comical; and there’s some audience participation that finally adds some fun in a show that takes itself far too seriously.  Yet by full time, Hokes Bluff just doesn’t say very much.  How un-American.


Watch: Hokes Bluff runs at Shoreditch Town Hall until 29th November as part of a UK tour.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Azealia Banks - Broke With Expensive Taste

Two years after breakout hit 212, some disappointing EPs, a tonne of controversy, countless Twitter feuds, homophobic abuse, failing to turn up to major gigs, and pulling releases at the last minute (seriously, her Wikipedia page reads like a soap opera), Azealia Banks has finally self-released her debut album ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’.  From someone who once topped NME’s Cool List in 2011, there’s only one question to be answered: was the album worth the wait?


There’s no doubt you get tracks for your dollar here – sixteen in total.  Yet what many of the tracks actually consist of is pretty sparse – for the first half of the album at least.  As with 212, her overall style fuses hip-hop with house, but as she raps over beats you realise that that’s…it.  Take opener Idle Delilah: it’s not until the three minute mark that we get the tiniest of hooks, but by that point it’s too little too late.  Too often she leans too heavily in one direction.  JFK, for instance, is a lengthy and repetitive house track with a forgettable rap; whilst the trap influenced Heavy Metal and Reflective is a hard-hitting hip-hop track that lacks that house brilliance – BBD similarly follows suit.  Banks sure does spit a lot of words out (often in impressively rapid quickfire), but does she really have anything of note to say?  That the best track here remains 212 is perhaps telling.  Who else could make a c-bomb sound so cool?

When she gets it right, though, the results are electric.  And those results are most evident in the album’s second half, once all the varying influences finally click into place.  Ice Princess begins with a trap beat, but soon crescendos into a rave-like chorus that (shock horror) includes an actual melody amongst all the sparkling synths.  Soda similarly fizzes, with its bubbling clipped hook that contrasts with its lyrics of loneliness (“I’m trying to hide behind tired eyes, I sigh”).  Chasing Time, meanwhile, is a major highlight – a diss track aimed squarely at her former label, Banks slyly sings “am I chasing time? ‘Cause I wasted all mine on you” over infectious beats and euphoric synths.  It’s by a mile her best track since 212, with crossover appeal between hip-hop circles, clubs and mainstream radio.  Luxury follows, all funky basslines and sexy production.

Occasionally, Banks drops a beat so stonking that you can’t help but take notice: the garage swagger of Desperado, the stomping and aggressive Yung Rapunxel, or the rapid, urgent dance beats of the album’s closing pairing of Miss Amor and Miss Camaraderie.  Then there’s Gimme a Chance that provides an early highlight, its first half pairing record scratching with horn interjections, before erupting with fiery salsa rhythms and a rap in Spanish.  It smacks of an album that lacks overall cohesion, but somehow still works.  If anything this is less an album and more just a collection of her work over the past few years.  It’s been so long, she had to release something, right?

If there’s one song that stands out, though it’s Nude Beach A-Go-Go.  It’s Banks pairing the Beach Boys with the opening credits sequence to an 80s sitcom style remake of Baywatch.  It contains such genius lyrics as “Ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong, surfer Billy, bing-bong” and questions “do you jingle when you dingle-dangle?”.  It’s a psychedelic head rush.  I have no idea what Banks was thinking (or taking) when she wrote this, but at last we can finally hear her having some fun.  For a woman who seems so angry and aggressive, constantly courting controversy, she’s definitely at her best when she lightens up a bit.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* 212
* Soda
* Chasing Time

Listen: ‘Broke With Expensive Taste’ is available now.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

iamamiwhoami - Blue

If you’re wondering why Swedish electro music is so good, then look no further than the latest release from iamamiwhoami, the musical brainchild of Jonna Lee.

Few albums are as evocative as this.  Waves of icy synths shatter against crystalline melodies and glacial beats.  Lee’s vocal shivers above it all, ghostly and sensual.  These sounds could only come from Scandinavia: expansive and polished like a frosty snowscape, the production flutters like a snowflake amongst deep-seated melancholic darkness. 

This may seem exaggerated, but opening track Fountain is immediately immersive as its arpeggios ripple and crash like waves over your ears.  Hunting for Pearls is glorious, its almost sinister verses building to a widescreen chorus of sparkling melodies.  Much of the album gleams with a glossy sheen (the catchy electro-pop of Vista and the soaring Chasing Kites especially), but there are moments of pleasing roughness.  Tap Your Glass, for instance, features a buoyant, almost tribal, beat; Thin shatters like abstract glass; Ripple has a carnal, rave-like texture; and closer Shadowshow is imbued with mystery and sinuous melodies.  As a whole, ‘Blue’ delivers a consistent tone and mood across its ten tracks that haunts as much as it dazzles.

Lee’s voice is perhaps a little contentious.  This is no criticism of her accent (I can just about count to ten in Swedish), but much of the lyrical content is somewhat unintelligible.  This may act as a barrier to the music’s emotion, leaving some cold, but if anything it only highlights the ethereal nature of Lee’s style.  The music alone is enough to stir an emotional response.

It comes as no surprise, then, that (just as with her previous two releases), ‘Blue’ is a complete audiovisual project with accompanying videos.  There’s no denying these are beautifully and artfully shot, brimming with the icy, Scandinavian imagery that’s so intrinsic to the music.  Yet it’s arguable whether they really add value or depth to the whole experience.  For the most part, these videos simply visualise the abstract nature of sound alone, undermining its evocative power.  It’s unnecessary: the music more than speaks for itself.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Hunting for Pearls
* Tap Your Glass
* Chasing Kites

Listen: ‘Blue’ is available now.

The Collector @ The Arcola Theatre

Henry Naylor, the writer and co-director of this piece, is best known for his comedy work, having written for Spitting Image as well as prolific comedians like Alistair McGowan, Lenny Henry, Rory Bremner and more.  The Collector is his first straight play, set in 2003 occupied Iraq.

A background in comedy may seem counterintuitive for such a serious subject matter, but here it works in Naylor’s favour.  The hour long show begins with a poetic introduction that outlines various Middle Eastern stereotypes with comic intent.  From there, the onstage characters aren’t afraid to laugh or crack a smile, ensuring that above all they remain touchingly human and compassionate.  The characters may be fictional, but their situations are very real.  As the narrative becomes graver, the closing poem is all the more poignant.

Nassir, the play’s protagonist, is a pro-Western translator working in Mazrat Gaol, one of Saddam’s most notorious torture houses now under American occupancy.  Except life isn’t the American dream he thought it might be – instead the war brings only corruption, torture and a gross breach of human rights.  Caught between his home culture and his desire for freedom, he is left with nobody and is forced into misplaced loyalty in order to save his family, a decision that can only end in tragedy.  Through this narrative Naylor mocks interrogation techniques and the disgustingly sadistic treatment of prisoners. 

However, Nassir is not present onstage.  Instead, his story is told through the monologues of three characters – his wife (Rotu Arya) and two American soldiers (Wililam Reay and Lesley Harcourt).  Gradually we piece together his story through the domino effect from one narrator to the next.  One character describes good translation as understanding the soul, yet Nassir’s plight is literally mistranslated in front of us by others.  His lack of literal voice only highlights the appalling nature of this harrowing tale, like a ghost that haunts the stage.

The play crams a hell of a lot into its one hour running time, but most prominent of all are the convincing performances from the three actors that convey such deeply moving individual stories.  Harcourt’s Foster, the interrogator, is a woman caught in a male-dominant world, her psychological methods seen as weak in the face of masculine brutality; Reay’s Captain Kasprowicz clearly has a heart, but the conflict clouds his judgement and turns him into a monster.  As Nassir’s wife Zoya, Arya’s emotive delivery is heartbreaking: from a bubbly young woman to a broken shadow of her former self, stripped of her identity.

As such, The Collector is a play of horrific human tragedy, beyond the politics of war.  Fringe theatre isn’t just about performing on a budget, it gives an opportunity to present new, concise and thought-provoking works.  Few are as stirring as this. 


Watch: The Collector runs at the Arcola Theatre until 22nd November.

Monday 17 November 2014

Interstellar (2014) - Christopher Nolan

Nolan has somewhat shot himself in the foot.  We're all expecting a mind-bending, dream-within-a-dream of a narrative in each of his films, but how much further can he go?

The answer is space.  Interstellar is his most ambitious film to date.  And for Nolan that's saying something.

It starts off simply (and slowly) enough.  Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an adventurous and free-spirited father and former NASA pilot, living on a farm with his two children and father.  On this near future Earth, humanity is on the brink of extinction, forced into space exploration to find a new home.  Cooper soon gets sent across the universe on such a mission, incorporating worm holes, singularities, time dilation and more.  It's science-fiction to the core - where Inception was a unique concept, Interstellar is based on scientific theory with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne employed to ensure realism.  It's arguably a more intelligent film, its internal logic transcending the film into actual scientific study, though it's equally less entertaining - a cerebral experience rather than an action thriller.

The comparisons to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey are palpable, not least for the grand scale, but for the inclusion of an A.I character, ground-breaking special effects, often beautiful design, and Hans Zimmer's shudderingly epic orchestral score that quite literally shakes the room with its imposing church organ.  This is a film that demands to be seen in the cinema.  Through its mesmerising symphonic structure and expansive narrative that tackles some demanding scientific and philosophical questions, this is less a space odyssey and more a space opera.

At times, Nolan stumbles over his own ambitions.  He's a director who seems to delight in confusing his audience, the film perhaps purposefully and unnecessarily obtuse.  A post-film Wikipedia search provides a lucid narrative based on sound concepts, but in practice some key points are not always well explained or presented on screen.  The film's climax in particular feels far-fetched, demanding we suspend our disbelief one step too far though it's certainly a clever idea.  The film's major error, though, is in the sound department: through McConaughey's sibilant, mumbling voice and a high proportion of lines muffled by space helmets and/or the score, too many plot points are lost, leaving the audience inexcusably baffled.

Beyond the science, the core story demonstrates the gravitational pull of human relationships across the boundaries of time and space - for all the film's scientific bombast, there remains a huge emotional payoff.  The success of the film, then, is equally down to the performances.  McConaughey plays a convincing hero and Anne Hathaway's fellow scientist Brand is an appropriate foil, plus the likes of Michael Caine and Matt Damon give excellent performances.  It's the superb and underrated Jessica Chastain as Cooper's adult daughter Murph who provides the emotional crux of the film; following in her father's footsteps as the real heroine, her story ensures the film delivers on an emotional level.

Interstellar is ultimately a flawed film: it's not as grand as 2001, not as satisfying as Inception and not as visually powerful as last year's Gravity.  It remains, however, one of the cinematic events of the year.  It's powerful, it's intriguing and will have you googling scientific theory before the credits are over.


Watch: Interstellar is out now.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Damien Rice - My Favourite Faded Fantasy

Remember when Little Mix covered Cannonball as their X Factor winners song and everyone despaired?  How dare they!

Now admittedly, the song’s melancholy wasn’t really the right fit for a fun girl band who couldn’t get to grips with the lyrical honesty.  But what this cover does prove is that Damien Rice’s material has always crossed the boundary between acoustic folk and pop.  For all the raw emotion of his music and its folk aesthetic, his grasp of melody and guitar fingerpicking ensured his music was equally palatable for mainstream tastes.

That’s no longer the case.  Eight years on from second album ‘9’ (itself essentially a carbon copy of ‘O’) and Rice has moved on somewhat from his old style.  Where his previous material was intimate, concise and immediately relatable, ‘My Favourite Faded Fantasy’ is a more difficult listen.  Each of the eight tracks operates within its own structure often far removed from simple verse and chorus.  There are multiple movements within a song, with contrasting moods and instrumentation.  It adds a sense of grandeur to his music that belies the intimacy of his past work, often feeling self-indulgent with endlessly repeated refrains.

The instrumentation also detracts from the emotion of the songs.  Where before Rice could sustain a full song with just his voice, guitar and perhaps the odd splash of cello or percussion, here we have full string sections, brass and other orchestral colours.  It may make for a more varied sound, but the delicate torch songs of the past are missing overall.  You won’t find many memorable melodies to guide you through the murk to the core feeling of the lyrics, unlike the immediacy of his best work.

That’s not to say there aren’t some highly emotional and beautiful moments on this album, it’s just you have to hunt for them a little more.  As a more complex work, the honest emotion isn’t as easily accessible as before.  The Greatest Bastard is the closest track to Rice’s old style, performed predominantly on guitar his quivering voice and storytelling take the fore – the “please don’t let up” section in the middle is heartbreaking.  The title track, meanwhile, is a great introduction into this new sound: inspired by the likes of Jeff Buckley, the touching opening lyrics slowly crescendo towards a tumultuous climax.  It Takes A Lot To Know A Man revolves around a simple piano chord sequence that gradually develops in typical Rice fashion, but at well over nine minutes long it would’ve served better in a more concise form.  Towards the end of the album, the tracks somewhat outstay their welcome – they simply don’t have the emotional punch of Cannonball, Volcano, The Blowers Daughter or Rootless Tree.  The impassioned vocals of Colour Me In are the exception.

There’s no doubt that ‘My Favourite Faded Fantasy’ is a beautiful album in places, but the simplicity of Rice’s old material is preferable to this new development.  You won’t be hearing any pop covers from this album any time soon – maybe that was all part of the plan?


Gizzle’s Choice:
* My Favourite Faded Fantasy
* The Greatest Bastard
* Colour Me In

Listen: ‘My Favourite Faded Fantasy’ is available now.

Siro-A @ Leicester Square Theatre

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be trapped inside a video game? 

Japanese show Siro–A gives a pretty good impression, what with its mix of techno chiptune music, futuristic presentation and Japanese references.  There’s even appearances from Mario and Pikachu.

The name translates as “impossible to define” which is apt – this is more an experience than a show.  It’s like a modernised version of traditional Kabuki theatre, the four lead performers in white make-up and jumpsuits combining mime, dance and magic with 21st century technology and electronic beats.  Lights, lasers and projections dazzle the audience in a dizzying display of imagery that ranges from psychedelic futurism, to traditional swordfights out of a wuxia film and kaleidoscopic kawaii characters.  It's beautiful, fascinating and mesmerising all at once.

‘Box’ for instance sees the group catching projected images on handheld slabs and boxes, all intricately choreographed and precisely delivered.  ‘Ball’, meanwhile, is performed in silhouette, combining mime and a projected bouncing ball with hilarious effect.  And that’s just the start.  Dance moves are recorded as projections on a screen and gradually layered in bright, artful colours; western films are replicated through projected words and mime (Frozen was particularly amusing); and the four performers are joined by digital clones as they pop in and out of screens across the stage.  There is even some (somewhat embarrassing) audience participation.

Best of all, though, is a new sequence called ‘Phantomime’, involving video recording, projection and dance in a complex sequence that sees a man enter a haunted house where he is manipulated by a masked spirit.  It’s not only incredibly cool to watch, but reminiscent of fighting some sort of video game boss.  All that was missing was a controller.

The four performers are better gymnasts than they are dancers, though their physicality remains impressive.  And whilst they take their work seriously, there are tonnes of physical comedy moments and hilarious facial expressions.  The real stars, though, are DJ Kentaro Homma and video artist Daichi Norikane – without their incredible talents, the show would lose its unique selling point.

That said, there is nothing else like Siro-A around, however you choose to define it.  It’s an experience full of unique charm that could only come from a group of whacky Japanese performers.


Watch: Siro-A runs at the Leicester Square Theatre until 11th January.

Monday 10 November 2014

Cheryl - Only Human

'3 Words' had pop banger Fight For This Love.
'Messy Little Raindrops' had crazy banger Promise This.
'A Million Lights' had club banger Call My Name.

And 'Only Human' has the "dickmatised" Crazy Stupid Love.  The signs were there really.

Where her previous three albums at least had a strong lead single, 'Only Human' is her most consistent album to date - only in that it's consistently crap.

The overly long, fifteen track album takes its musical cues from the dance influenced electro pop that's already been done better by countless other artists.  There's even a track here called Beats N Bass if you were unsure, by the very end, exactly what the album consists of.  The production is frothy to the extreme, distinctly lacking in hooks, novelty or excitement.

The only other musical element is the vocal: bland, emotionless and with a limited range.  Live Life Now features a distinct lack of melody as Cheryl essentially talks (I'm reluctant to call it rap) over the aforementioned beats "n" bass.  Thematically and literally it's followed by It's About Time, a song about moving on written by fellow girl aloud Nicola Roberts.  It's a fairly average funk track, but why Roberts' songwriting ability is idolised these days I'll never know.  "I need a big explosion", she sings.  No thanks Cheryl, you've already shat out this turd of an album.

It starts with an Intro consisting of a speech from philosopher Alan Watts, which fails to add any depth to an album that is beyond hope.  He asks "what would you like to do if money were no object?".  Cheryl continues with Live Life Now as if to answer his question (easy for her to say), a sentiment that continues throughout the album.  Clearly she wants to move on from her past mistakes, but there's nothing anthemic or emotive about her words.  Instead she simply screams "I don't care" on the fizzing track of the same name, which she later repeats on Throwback with the line "I've got zero f*cks to give".  That track's preceded by Stars, which sounds like the theme tune to some shoddy piece of Saturday night 'entertainment' with its chorus lyric "we can all be stars", as if justifying her own rise to fame.

Cheryl Cole was a troubled soul.  Fighting for love and record sales, she actually put a modicum of effort into her career and, with a very public love life, had something emotive to sing about.  At the very least she released three memorable pop singles with a spark and an edge about them - enough to elevate her career.

Now we're stuck with Cheryl Fernandez-Versini: a dull woman who's in crazy stupid love, patronisingly tells us that "if money were no object" then "we can all be stars", and undermines herself by crying out "I don't care".  Maybe if she cared a bit more she'd have an album worth listening to.


Gizzle's Choice:
* It's About Time
* I Don't Care
* Only Human

Listen: 'Only Human' is available now.

Friday 7 November 2014

Scandi-pop EP Roundup

Two EPs. One old.  One new.  Both amazing.

Marlene – Indian Summer

I missed this.  I’m sorry for that.

‘Indian Summer’ was originally released back in May and, like the title suggests, would’ve made the perfect icy soundtrack to a hot summer.  Instead, I’ll be listening over the frosty weeks to come.

Each of the five tracks reflects differing styles that have all been popular over the past year.  The title track is perhaps the weakest, though it remains a solid Swedish pop track with a catchy “aay aah” hook that Katy Perry would be proud of.  Bon Voyage is catchier still, its subdued, womping synths making way for an earworm of a chorus with instant appeal.  I Do This For You is a more sombre track, all throbbing, moody synths and clattering drums that build into an almighty chorus that brings to mind plenty of other songs – but in a really good way (this and this in particular).  With Stay Awake, Marlene heads down more of an R&B path with its sparse beats, but its glorious piano melodies and syncopated sunny synth chords remain uplifting.  Finally, it ends on a laidback note with Lavender Fields, all shimmering piano arpeggios and evocative dance production.

However, the EP remains the work of one artist above all – not least for Marlene’s prominent vocals, but for the thick layer of cool Scandi polish.  There may be plenty of similar electro-leaning female artists coming out of Sweden these days, but Marlene really does stand ahead of the pack, even six months late…


Listen: ‘Indian Summer’ is available now

Kleerup – As If We Never Won

Where Marlene takes on disparate styles, with his latest EP Swedish producer Kleerup has established a strong core sound that’s a step on from his own solo material and his most famous work with Robyn. 

‘As If We Never Won’ is indebted to the 80s.  That’s clear immediately from the pounding beat and pulsing synths of Sad Boys, its syncopated hook slowly layering up with strings and guitars.  As the title suggests, it’s a dance track with a melancholic streak and a widescreen sound that only widens with following track Let Me In.  Beginning with a sliding guitar, its regular marching beat has a distinct reminiscence of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, coloured with kaleidoscopic synths and a dreamy vocal from Susanne Sundfør.  It’s the high point of the album, followed by the similar Nothing Left To Die For with Jenny Wilson that slows the pace a touch but with a familiar throb. 

The mood changes from here on with Rock U featuring Niki & The Dove.  The sound remains firmly in the 80s, but the focus changes to heavily reverbed guitars for a sound closer to modern 80s throwbacks like Twin Shadow and M83 (as well as Niki & The Dove themselves).  As If We Never Won features vocals from Maja Ivarsson and takes on a sombre air with a whirring electro solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on the Drive soundtrack – but with an added quality of Swedish cool.  Ending with the acoustic track Thank God For Sending Demons feels a little out of place by comparison, though it’s a pleasant enough listen.

Mining the 80s once more for inspiration may seem tired, but Kleerup’s EP is just so slickly produced that you can’t help but fall in love with the sounds all over again.  Bring Robyn back on board and that’s just magic waiting to happen.


Listen: ‘As If We Never Won’ is available now.

Thursday 6 November 2014

The Wall @ The Hope Theatre

Remember the summer holidays?  Yeah, for some of us it was quite some time ago.  We may long for those days now, but for the teenagers in this play from Scottish playwright D.C. Jackson, it’s a time of utter boredom.  Using Regina Spektor’s Summer in the City as a soundtrack immediately sets up the play’s mood.

Set in a run-down area of Stewarton in Scotland covered in graffiti and urine, four teenagers use the titular wall as a place to meet and a place to escape to.  There’s Barry (Sam Watson) who spends his days with his nose in a book; he awkwardly chats up Michelle (Emma King) but always ends up saying the wrong thing.  Michelle is quite the flirt, her world turned on its head when her family move away from the area.  Barry’s younger sister Norma (Roslyn Paterson) is always getting her words mixed up.  She’s also stolen some of their dad’s weed and is worried her brother will get the blame.  And then there’s the jokey, always horny Rab (Corran Royle), somewhat reminiscent of Jay from The Inbetweeners, chasing after a girl in the local corner shop.

Without the structure of school, the four teenagers are lost; reprobates in their closely knit community.  How can they escape the ghetto and their lonely lives?  Over the course of the one-act play Jackson explores sexuality, discovering alcohol and the strength of family – all relatable themes from our own childhood.  What does family mean?  Can they really be trusted?  Set in the late 90s, it relies on nostalgia both from its audience and its adult cast – without the gadgets of today, the wall is the social hub of this claustrophobic town.

If The Wall isn’t always convincing in creating strong dramatic purpose and pacing, it certainly succeeds in creating a believable set of characters.  Jackson’s script is frequently laugh out loud funny, full of bad language, Scottish slang and amusing punchlines.  Yet there’s a truth to the characters too.  For all their youth, there’s an eloquent sense of poetry to their words.  Their thoughts and anecdotes somehow make sense.

That’s also testament to the cast.  There’s sibling affection between Watson and Paterson as Barry and Norma, King’s Michelle is a striking beauty, and Royle amuses as the oddball Rab.  Together they offer enjoyable performances in a play that’s something of a Trainspotting for teenagers.


Watch: The Wall runs until 15th November.