Friday, 28 February 2014

Neneh Cherry - Blank Project

Oh Neneh. Buffalo Stance, Manchild, 7 Seconds and Woman are all such brilliant pop tunes, ahead of their time and inspirational to current artists.  Now the Swedish-American singer has released her first solo album in nineteen years and her change of sound is likely to upset a few people.

Produced by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, ‘Blank Project’ is a low-fi, sparse and abrasive record that on first listen seems worlds away from the polished hip-hop inspired pop of her past, though you can certainly hear the roots of her sound littered throughout.  The change in style is immediately apparent from opening track Across The Water – Cherry half singing, half rapping with wavering tuning accompanied solely by a sparse percussive beat.  The lyrics are intensely personal, much of the album inspired by the death of her mother (“since our mother’s gone it always seems to rain”), whilst her voice ranges from wailing howls to animalistic cackling and an eerie whisper.

It’s likely for this reason that the album’s aesthetic is so empty, barren and angry, resulting in music that’s experimental, agitated and psychologically offbeat.  Tribal percussion clashes with scuzzy synths and Cherry’s often pained vocal: the menacing title track; the cowbell and melismatic singing of Naked; the driving dance rhythms of Weightless; the angular beats of Cynical; the hypnotic, hammering sounds of Everything.  There’s a similarity with last year’s ‘Shaking The Habitual’ from that other great Swedish export, The Knife, an album that similarly eschewed pop roots for something raw and animalistic.

The same can be said of ‘Blank Project’, which has a distinct lack of polish.  The production is sparse to the extreme (as the title would suggest), almost sounding like a series of unfinished demos.  You can practically hear the dry drum sounds bouncing off the studio walls.  This emptiness is clearly a purposeful decision, the harsh music confronting the listener with challenging, dark lyrical themes that explore the deepest abysses of the human psyche.  It’s certainly a bold change of pace, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily pleasant to listen to.  Not that music has to be pleasant at all, but with a lack of melodic invention we’re simply left with a suffocating sense of percussive oblivion.  ‘Blank Project’ isn’t without merit, certainly in terms of Cherry’s raw honesty and musical bravery, but not even a guest appearance from Robyn can save the day.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Naked
* Weightless
* Everything

Listen: 'Blank Project' is available now.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

August: Osage County (2013) - John Wells

Meryl Streep is undeniably one of the greatest actresses of our time.  August: Osage County marks her eighteenth Academy Award nomination, making her the most nominated actor in history, and it is thoroughly deserved.  Her performance here as the faded Violet Weston is remarkable.  Old-fashioned and obsessed with beauty, Violet is a bitter and twisted woman, exacerbated by her suffering from mouth cancer and drug abuse.  She is the overbearing woman at the head of the matriarchal Weston family, able to manipulate and control others through a single glance (“I told you, nobody slips anything by me”).  Her views have seeped deep into the family history like a poison, tearing it apart.  Aided by some comically biting dialogue from scriptwriter Tracy Letts (who also wrote the play the film is adapted from), Streep has an extraordinary way with words and wonderfully realised physicality that makes for a richly characterised performance as Violet, a woman who frustrates as much as she entertains and inspires pity.

The titular Osage County forms the flat, endless backdrop to this portrait of a family confined to their “madhouse” home whilst dealing with grief.  When Violet’s husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) commits suicide (and you can soon understand why), the tragedy forces the disparate and dysfunctional family to unwillingly come together in mourning, drawing comparison between genders and generations.  “Don’t die before me…just…survive”, demands Barbara (Julia Roberts) to her daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).  Director John Wells has turned the cinema screen into a mirror for the audience to reflect on their own family values.  Here, grief and pain has a tendency to bring out the worst in people.  Of course, every family has its secrets, but if you can’t be truthful with your family then who can you turn to?

The Weston family, however, suffer more than most; not one character comes off lightly.  It’s clear that the film is based on a play – at times it feels a little stagey and lacks believability.  How can so many things go wrong for one family?  How many thematic ideas can Letts squeeze into her screenplay?  The highlight of the film is the lengthy and dramatic post-funeral dinner scene at the heart of the narrative, the viewer positioned as a fly-on-the-wall voyeuristically delighting in the misfortune of these characters, laughing and crying in equal measure at the bile spouted by Violet.  Yet it feels very much like a scripted scene that doesn’t necessarily benefit from being on film beyond the A-list cast.

The staginess extends to the characters themselves who all conform to obvious types: the responsible elder sister who takes after her mother (a superb Julia Roberts); her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor); their rebel, pot-smoking, vegetarian daughter (Abigail Breslin); the quiet secretive sister (Julianne Nicholson); the shy man forever remembered as a quiet young boy (Benedict Cumberbatch); the fragile bimbo sister (Juliette Lewis); her playboy boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney).

Yet this is an ensemble piece of exceptional acting from everyone involved that ensures that each character is convincing as a human being in the face of stereotype.  That Streep still manages to overshadow such a talented cast is testament to her exemplary ability.  Give that woman an Oscar.


Wednesday, 26 February 2014

St. Vincent - St. Vincent

If you hadn’t noticed by the album’s cover art – the striking pose, the Einstein-inspired hair – Annie Clark (a.k.a St. Vincent) is something of an eccentric.  The opening lyrics of the album (Rattlesnake) further cement her weirdness: “follow the power lines back from the road, no one around so I take off my clothes”.  It's a song based on a true story of Clark, naked, confronted by a snake in a Texan desert - not exactly your usual subject matter.

And it’s not the only track with a provocative opening lyric.  Following track Birth In Reverse opens with “oh what an ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate”.  Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of St Vincent: a solo album about a woman following solo pursuits; a woman staking her claim as a solo artist after an early career as part of The Polyphonic Spree, Sufjan Stevens’ touring band and 2012’s collaborative album with David Byrne, ‘Love This Giant’.

On ‘St. Vincent’, her fourth album, she continues to marry her eccentricities with an art-rock sensibility in a celebration of her uniqueness – Bowie clearly being a major inspiration.  Digital Witness at the centre of the album is a satire on the digital age, social media and reality television (“what’s the point of even sleeping if I can’t show it, if you can’t see me?”) coupled with stomping brass and jagged guitars; Huey Newton has a space age touch and disparate sounding lyrics that erupt in a blaze of guitars in the middle eight; Regret opens with an insistent glam riff; Severed Crossed Fingers closes the album with a suitably epic sounding ballad, amusingly undermined by its meandering synth melodies.  The music is in staccato mode throughout (besides the alluring Prince Johnny and lilting I Prefer Your Love), the jerky rhythms and distorted sounds grating together in playful, often otherworldly, creativity.

Despite the weirdness, ‘St. Vincent’ is Clark’s most accessible album to date.  As the first of her albums to be released on a major label, it’s clear that she’s courting the mainstream here.  For many, ‘St. Vincent’ will be the first introduction to her material, a point only emphasised by the album’s self-title.  Yet more so, over the course of her career Clark has refined her sound, incorporating greater elements of pop.  This album is full of nagging hooks – from the wailing vocals of Rattlesnake, to the brittle distortion in the chorus of Birth In Reverse, the bubbling stomp of Digital Witness, and the pulsing electronics and dreamy vocals of Psychopath

There’s still room for further refinement, though.  Musically this new material is certainly more palatable, but her frequently ambiguous lyrics sometimes act as a barrier into her world – an offbeat and peculiar world that may straddle the line between bizarre fun and artsy pretense, but is bewitching nonetheless.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Rattlesnake
* Birth In Reverse
* Digital Witness

Listen: 'St. Vincent' is available now.

Coldplay - Midnight

Oh Coldplay. The band we all love to hate.

And with the sudden release of Midnight, there’s plenty more fuel to add to the fire.  With each album, the band have progressively become more electronic, reaching an apex with ‘Mylo Xyloto’.  It’s a development that has divided opinions from both fans and critics.

Yet that’s nothing compared to Midnight, in which the band have gone full-on electronica.  It’s soft and subdued, gloomy yet glittering and works quite wonderfully as a piece of ambience.  Over time, it slowly expands with a gently pulsing beat and rave keyboards to become, in its latter half, more of an atmospheric, dreamy dance track that's complimented by the eerie black and white video.

It’s Chris Martin’s vocoded vocals that prove most controversial however.  The robotic distortion blurs his voice with the murky textures that spin around the production, yet it renders the lyrics incoherent.  In Chris Martin’s case this is perhaps a good thing, but it also means there’s a distinct lack of emotional connection with the lyrics beyond mumbling and murmuring.

Still, you can’t knock the band for their bravery, the result being one of their better tracks in recent years that’s oddly beautiful.  Just forget about the fact it’s Coldplay.


Listen: The band have released no other plans for music this year - perhaps a new, secret album is on the cards?

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Young Wife / Dido & Aeneas - OperaUpClose @ The Kings Head Theatre

OperaUpClose at the Kings Head are expanding their reaches further into new writing with their Flourish writing competition, through which Polish composer Katarzyna Brochocka’s Young Wife was discovered.  The one act one-woman piece is based on a novel by Polish writer Gabriela Zapolska (1857-1921), The Memoirs Of A Young Wife, which depicts the first year in a young girl’s marriage through diary form. 

Brochocka hopes the piece has relevance to a modern audience.  Musically, at least, the composer has combined classical forms and dances with discordant modernism.  Structured as an ongoing monologue, the music is more akin to a lengthy recitative than traditional aria, the music changing with each new diary entry and change of mood from distracted pointillism to dreamlike reverie and excited melisma.  As such, with few obvious melodic themes, the music flows like a stream of consciousness, albeit with lengthy transitions between each diary entry that represent the passing of time with relentless chromaticism.  It’s in these sections that Brochocka, accompanying on piano, offers a glittering display of keyboard technique.  Whilst a more colourful orchestration could enhance the changes of mood, the single piano mirrors the single voice of the soprano performance.

And Maud Millar presents a transfixing depiction of the young wife (the role is dual cast with Sarah Minns).  Vocally she matches the piano with a varied emotional range, from piercing, joyous high notes to tenderly soft lyricism; her subtle acting, meanwhile, offers a genuine portrayal of an innocent and naïve young woman.  With minimal staging and lighting, the production feels more like a recital piece than true opera, but that is not to diminish the intrigue of the score nor the quality of Millar’s performance.

The company are best known, however, for mixing things up with their opera productions and their Dido and Aeneas - forming the second part of this operatic double bill - is no exception.  Director Valentina Ceschi offers an odd clash of low-brow modern America and traditional high-brow English culture as she transports the audience to ‘Carthage High’.  Here, Dido becomes a lovable prom queen and Aeneas quarter-back of the Trojans, accompanied by a small ensemble of pom-pom wielding cheerleaders who take selfies, rave to Katy Perry and sing country songs.  The cast commit wholeheartedly to the concept (even throwing in a Miley Cyrus reference at one point), which certainly makes for creativity during the dances that divide the acts – but to what end?  Is there a purpose to the setting beyond idiosyncrasy and provocation?  The result is Greek tragedy meets Mean Girls that may seem relevant to a younger audience, but the plot becomes more comedic bitchy melodrama than serious opera.  Purists will not be happy.

Regardless of the setting, the singing is exceptional – from Ian Beadle’s strapping Aeneas, to James Hall’s strong countertenor voice as Zach, Eleanor Ross’ pure Belinda and Phillipa Thomas as the sour Britney.  As Dido, Zarah Hible offers a mature performance with a rich timbre; her rendition of the famous When I Am Laid In Earth is beautifully sung, whilst having her slit her wrists with her own tiara is a clever touch.  It’s a shame, though, that the ensemble of musicians suffer multiple tuning issues.

As a whole, then, this double bill sums up what OperaUpClose is all about – a young and daring opera company not afraid to take a risk on new work or unusual staging.  For better or worse, the London opera scene would be far duller without them.


Watch: The double bill runs until the 29th March.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The WhatsOnStage Awards 2014 @ The Prince of Wales Theatre

"We've witnessed something so fucking special here tonight", said presenter Mel Giedroyc.  She wasn't talking about the awards or the performances though.  No, this comment was following the night's musical director Tom Deering falling into the orchestra pit after attempting to deliver some Battenburg cake to a member of the audience.  It was as ridiculous as it sounds (thankfully he wasn't injured) and representative of a rather haphazard, if highly entertaining, evening.

WhatsOnStage pride themselves on their awards show, the only major theatre awards in which the audience are the judges.  It didn't really work for The Brits though, and it doesn't always work here, with gongs often awarded to the biggest, rather than most deserving, names.  Inevitably, as the evening was hosted by the Prince of Wales Theatre, The Book of Mormon was the biggest winner of the night with a total of four awards for Best New Musical, Best Actor in a Musical (Gavin Creel), and best Supporting Actor and Actress in a musical (Stephen Ashfield and Alexia Khadime).  No doubt The Book of Mormon is a worthy winner and an audience favourite.

Harry Potter stars Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe both won awards for London Newcomer of the Year and Best Actor in a Play respectively amongst incredibly stiff competition.  Other recognisable winners included David Walliams for Best Supporting Actor in a Play, Barry Humphries for Best Solo Performance, Helen Mirren for Best Actress in a Play, Scarlett Strallen for Best Actress in a Musical, and pretty much anything associated with Michael Grandage's year-long season (including Grandage himself winning Best Director).  With West End ticket prices so high, audiences are of course most likely to vote for the most popular shows and stars, leading to some worthy yet underrated nominees missing out.

Another notable omission is theatre outside of London, with only a single award for Best Regional Production.  This year the award went to My Fair Lady at the Crucible, Sheffield.  "Maybe one day we'll get the rights and you can see our production in the West End", said the show's hopeful producer.  Or perhaps more audiences should travel outside the M25 for their theatre fix?

Awards aside, WhatsOnStage certainly know how to put on a show.  The musical performances of the evening were taken from both lesser-known West End shows and forthcoming productions, including a dazzling opening from Cynthia Erivo singing the Dreamgirls hit 'One Night Only' (soon to be seen in I Can't Sing); a preview of the forthcoming Water Babies from singers Louise Dearman and Lauren Samuels; and Michael Xavier almost single handedly holding up the male contingent with a sumptuous, classic performance of Hey There from The Pajama Game.  The night ended with a real stunner though - Willemijn Verkaik belting out Let It Go from Disney's Frozen was quite phenomenal.

The real stars of the evening, however, were hosts Mel Giedroyc and Rufus Hound.  Following "complaints" last year, they seemed surprised to be back handing out "a fuck-tonne of awards".  The show was more comedy act than anything, with crude off-the-cuff humour, plenty of swearing, a lot of on-stage snogging and even an appearance from Pudsey the Britain's Got Talent winning dog who totally upstaged Walliams' acceptance speech.  The whole event was out of control "like a quiz night in a Wetherspoons", the humour was random yet absolutely hilarious, and we all learnt the meaning of "doing a Deering".

What a night.

Below is a full list of WhatsOnStage 2014 winners.

Best Actress in a Play - Dame Helen Mirren in The Audience (Gielgud Theatre)

Best Actor in a Play - Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple of Inishmaan (Noel Coward Theatre)

Best Supporting Actress in a Play - Haydn Gwynne in The Audience (Gielgud Theatre)

Best Supporting Actor in a Play - David Walliams in A Midsummer Night's Dream (Noel Coward Theatre)

Best Actress in a Musical - Scarlett Strallen in A Chorus Line (London Palladium) and Candide (Menier Chocolate Factory)

Best Actor in a Musical - Gavin Creel in The Book of Mormon (Prince of Wales Theatre)

Best Supporting Actress in a Musical - Alexia Khadime in The Book of Mormon (Prince of Wales Theatre)

Best Supporting Actor in a Musical - Stephen Ashfield in The Book of Mormon (Prince of Wales Theatre)

Best Solo Performance - Barry Humphries in Eat Pray Laugh! (London Palladium)

Best Ensemble Performance - A Chorus Line (London Palladium)

Best Takeover in a Role - Carrie Hope Fletcher in Les Miserables(Queen's Theatre)

Best New Play - The Audience (Gielgud Theatre)

Best New Comedy - The Play That Goes Wrong (Old Red Lion and Trafalgar Studios)

Best New Musical - The Book of Mormon (Prince of Wales Theatre)

Best Play Revival - To Kill A Mockingbird (Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park)

Best Musical Revival - The Sound of Music (Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park)

London Newcomer of the Year - Rupert Grint in Mojo (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Best Off-West End Production - Titanic (Southwark Playhouse)

Best Regional Production - My Fair Lady (Sheffield Crucible)

Best West End Show - Matilda the Musical (RSC at the Cambridge Theatre)

Theatre Event of the Year - National Theatre's 50th anniversary gala

Best Shakespearean Production - A Midsummer Night's Dream (Noel Coward Theatre)

Best Director - Michael Grandage for the Michael Grandage Season (Noel Coward Theatre)

Best Set Designer - Mark Thompson for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Theatre Royal Drury Lane)

Best Lighting Designer - Adam Silverman for Macbeth (Trafalgar Studios)

Best Choreographer - Peter Darling for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Theatre Royal Drury Lane)

Best Original Music - Once by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (Phoenix Theatre)

Dallas Buyers Club (2014) - Jean-Marc Vallée

If The Wolf Of Wall Street was an amusing take on glamourising drug abuse, Dallas Buyers Club is its antithesis.  A similarly biographical film but a far more human story, it stars Matthew McConaughey as the misogynistic Ron Woodroof whose hedonistic lifestyle of drugs, alcohol and prostitutes catches up to him when he is diagnosed with Aids.

Ron is given thirty days to live, an ultimatum he initially scoffs at with knee-jerk machismo.  Yet he's not a man to give up easily, going to extreme measures in his fight for survival.  Vallée's vision of 1980s Dallas is bleakly realistic - in total contrast to Scorcese's high-tempo Wall Street - with cinematography that literally drains the colour from Ron's world and only slight hints of diegetic music.  It's a world full of all the homophobic, rodeo cowboys you might expect.  Few are as prejudice as Ron himself, but once diagnosed he is shunned by his friends who immediately label him a "fag".  One fateful stint in hospital forces him to face up to his homophobic views when he meets the transgender Rayon (Jared Leto); together they strike up an unlikely friendship as business partners selling unapproved pharmaceuticals from Mexico to members of their 'Dallas Buyers Club' through a loophole in the law.  This war against the American healthcare system forms the backbone of the narrative, a constant struggle between human testing and the lives of AIDs victims who seem to be far more knowledgable on their own health than both the doctors and the FDA.

At the heart of the film though is the relationship between Ron and Rayon, owing to the stunning performances from the two actors.  McConaughey, is proving himself to be a talented actor far beyond the rom-coms he's best known for.  In a career-best performance, he has totally transformed for this role into the gaunt and skeletal Ron.  Virulent and hostile, he is a toxic cocktail of masculinity - a foul-mouthed, skinny redneck for whom 'Aids' is a bi-word for 'homo'.  Yet in one scene later on, he sobs in his car uncontrollably at the side of the road.  The character's journey may seem hackneyed and overtly Hollywood, but McConaughey's performance is truly convincing.

With Rayon, Vallée balances the tragic and comic elements of the narrative, with plenty of amusing one-liners that prove the character is tougher than you might expect beneath the colourful, trashy make-up and tarty dresses.  Leto has similarly transformed in a sincere and touching performance.  Both characters could have become clichéd stereotypes, but under the verité gaze of Vallée's camera, the results are incredibly honest.  By comparison, Jennifer Garner's one-note Dr Eve Saks doesn't quite match the same level of characterisation.

Dallas Buyers Club is the most important Aids related film since 1993's Philadelphia.  12 Years A Slave may sweep the boards at this year's Academy Awards, but Vallée's film is utterly deserving of its Oscar recognition.


Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Big Reunion 2014 @ The Hammersmith Apollo

Going into the gig for this year's Big Reunion there were a number of unanswered questions.  How would 5th Story work as a band?  Would there be any special guests, like Blue in last year's show?  Who in A1 would takeover tambourine duties?  Would Girl Thing actually have any songs to sing?

The show answered these questions and provided more.  Where, for instance, was Coree from Damage?  And why is Andi Peters so underused as a compère?  Of course we'll find out the background to the show in future episodes, but for now the acts can only be judged by this performance - one that was full of nostalgic thrills, but a little lacklustre compared to last year.

A1 are one of this series' biggest acts and they provided a high energy opening with their cover of Take On Me.  Their performance was perhaps the most varied, including the self-penned ballad Caught In The Middle (with live instruments!) and the typically boyband Same Old Brand New You.  Ben was a clear leader with his nasal vocals and boyish looks, but even as a group they outshone the other male three-piece 3T.  The Jackson brothers have far less memorable tracks, all ballads and all dedicated to their uncle who was splashed across the screens - frustrating when most gigs show the acts on screen rather than just a backdrop.  Clearly 3T are no longer bothered about separating themselves from their family and with their hair twists and tracksuits, they are little more than a 90s novelty.

The same could be said of Damage.  Vocally their tight R&B harmonies are strong and they still have the slick dance moves of before plus a far cooler style compared with the sappy 3T.  What they don't have are any decent songs, except perhaps their cover of Wonderful Tonight.  Many thought the same of Girl Thing, who themselves noted "we never expected to get this reaction".  And although their set included a decent enough cover of Katy Perry's Roar, the now ironically titled Last One Standing perhaps should have made it to number one all those years ago.  The girls are very competent performers, though they lack the individual personalities of their Spice Girl rivals - perhaps these will shine through in future episodes.  At the least, their performance of Pure and Simple allowed them to sing the song how it was always meant to be done.

Eternal were arguably the headliners of the evening and vocally they were undoubtedly the most assured.  The previous fallout between Kelly and the Bennett sisters seemed to be largely forgotten as they belted out Stay and Power of a Woman.  Yet disappointingly they didn't perform Just A Step From Heaven.  More disappointing was that the gig didn't end with I Wanna Be The Only One, clearly the biggest hit of the night with its joyous, multiple key changes and even Bebe Winans joining the girls on stage.

Surprisingly, then, it was 5th Story who proved the most entertaining of the night.  The problem with the gig as a whole was that most of the acts (bar A1 and Eternal) are one hit wonders, so the lack of hit songs ultimately fell flat.  With 5th Story (comprising five solo performers, each with their own hits), each member took turns to take the lead with the others providing backing vocals and dancing, meaning we had five hits instead of just one.  Adam Rickett looked awkward singing I Breathe Again (this time without the glass box); Kenzie led an audience sing-along of Blazin' Squad's Crossroads; Another Level's Freak Me was very much a group number; and Kavana showed great showmanship with his performance of I Can Make You Feel Good.  Gareth Gates' cover of Spirit In The Sky provided an anti-climactic finale, representative of the evening as a whole.  Despite the series build-up, this year's acts simply aren't of the same calibre as last year.  This might have been an enjoyable evening, but a third series is looking increasingly unlikely.


Bel-Ami - London College of Music @ Charing Cross Theatre

Alex Loveless’ new musical Bel-Ami, performed by the students of the London College of Music, is a modern re-telling of Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel of a journalist’s rise to power through the manipulation of a series of wealthy mistresses.  The novel was recently adapted for a film starring Robert Pattinson (clearly inspired by his heartthrob status), but for his adaptation Loveless seems to take inspiration from another theatrical source – the recent American Psycho musical.  Both feature electronic pop scores, robotic choreography, and a kinetic, technological feel.

The production needs to be slick and polished in order to pull off this style, something that Bel-Ami doesn’t quite achieve.  The narrative is ultimately clunky, comprising disparate scenes that don’t quite hang together into a believable plot.  There are some serious themes hovering in the background – is journalism just another war zone for this ex-soldier who fought in Afghanistan?  Is his rise to power any more dignified than the political celebrities he vilifies in his gossip column?  Who really holds the power in this battle of the sexes?  These are questions the show attempts to pose but it never quite strikes a chord.  What’s lacking is a solid dramatic thread, but unfortunately George’s lust for power doesn’t really come across amongst the loud music, bustling choreography and sometimes clichéd dialogue.

And that’s no fault of the actor.  It’s easy to see why Johnny Fitzharris has been cast as the charismatic, womanising protagonist, the audience immediately drawn to his stage presence and strong tenor vocals.  He’s supported by some excellent vocal performances from the female leads – the belting Tessa Leake (Victoria), the clipped Abigail Poulton (Madeleine) and the girlish Kathryn Kitchener (Suzanne).  The rest of the cast surely have fun performing a number of humorous cameos and deftly singing the contemporary, funky songs that work individually as pop numbers but rarely add depth to the narrative.  The cast also cope well with some technical hiccups, though as a whole the lighting often leaves the actors’ faces in the dark and the video screen backdrop feels static and underused compared to the enthusiasm of the performers.

Yet for all the issues of the show itself, the cast are full of energy with a handful of standout performers showing some post-college promise.


Watch: Bel-Ami runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until the 1st March.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Nina Nesbitt - Peroxide

You know it’s a bad sign for pop music when Nina Nesbitt creeping under the radar with her debut album is the most notable mainstream release of the week.  So far she’s best known for being friends with Ed Sheeran and supporting his tour, as opposed to her previous (admittedly recognisable) singles – Stay Out peaked at no. 21 -  and her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop used on a John Lewis (non-Christmas) advert.  Hit singles aren’t exactly her forte.

Nesbitt has so far been marketed very much as a female Ed Sheeran, which in turn makes her the equivalent of a younger KT Tunstall, Amy McDonald or Kate Nash (and not just for her Scottish nationality).  ‘Peroxide’ predominantly consists of acoustic folky ballads, with the odd Tunstall-esque rock lick thrown in for good measure on the likes of 18 Candles or We’ll Be Back For More.  On the slower songs she certainly lives up to the Sheeran comparison: Bright Blue Eyes could be taken straight from ‘+’, whilst Two Worlds Away is admittedly quite sweet and on Align she does her best Gabrielle Aplin impression.  For the most part if you’ve heard those elusive singles you’ve heard the best this folk-by-numbers album has to offer.

Lyrically Nesbitt is aiming towards a conversational style similar to Kate Nash, but alongside the jaunty folk melodies her music comes across as childish.  With titles like Selfies, 18 Candles and Not What Your Dad Wants To Know it’s not hard to spot her immaturity before you’ve even pressed play, whilst listening will present clunky lyrics like Mr C’s “I’ve come to the conclusion you’re quite fit, but I’m under no illusion you’re a dick”.  And when she’s not singing of teenage clichés, she’s singing of hackneyed musical clichés – We’ll Be Back For More’s “all I’ve got is this guitar, I’ll let it take me near or far”.  Nesbitt’s folk is far too polished for such downbeat, whiskey-fuelled notions.

He’s The One I’m Bringing Back is the album’s saving grace.  Just as country Taylor Swift leans towards pop, so too does the folky Nesbitt on this funky sing-along track that proves she does have some pop potential.  Yet her refusal to swear on the line “I don’t give a fuss” is frustratingly twee, clearly designed to uphold the ‘nice girl’ façade.  It’s just one example of Nesbitt’s desire to play it safe in a dull album that lacks youthful charm.  Not every teenage album needs to be fuelled by angst, but compared with the precocious Lorde and her laissez-faire cool, Nesbitt’s album is as soulless and bland as the album title would suggest.  That she’s duetted with Irish bore-fest Kodaline on Hold You is the final nail in the coffin.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Stay Out
* Two Worlds Away
* He’s The One I’m Bringing Back

Listen: ‘Peroxide’ is available now.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Little Dragon - Klapp Klapp

With forthcoming third album ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ (pictured) arriving later this Spring, could this finally be the year that Little Dragon receive the attention they so deserve? Since 2011’s excellent second album ‘Ritual Union’, the Swedish group released vibrant single Sunshine in 2012 and vocalist Yukimi Nagano featured on SBTRKT’s erotically charged Wildfire from his 2011 self-titled album. Klapp Klapp ushers in the next era for the band.

The ‘Rubberband’ of the new album is certainly evoked in the elastic bass of Klapp Klapp, but as the single title would suggest the real focus is the rhythm. The insistent snare beat provides a sense of forceful urgency beneath synth bleeps and Nagano’s raw vocal. Release after release, the group continue to create unique sounds – sinister, powerful and seductive.

These are three words that apply to the video too. At least, the first video. Klapp Klapp will be accompanied by two videos, both creative directed by Nabil who has worked with Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Bon Iver. This first supernatural video is directed by Taylor Cohen and certainly harks back to the band’s biggest hit to date, Ritual Union. Surely that’s about to change.


Listen: Klapp Klapp is available now. ‘Nabuma Rubberband’ is released on May 12th

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Julia Spada - Reptile Mission

P3, Sweden’s biggest radio station, recently voted Julia Spada as their “Number 1 Breakthrough Artist for 2014”.  And although Reptile Mission is indeed her solo debut, Swedophiles may recognise her from her work with Saturday, Monday on his ‘The Ocean’ EP from last year (The Ocean and Headshake are both brilliant pop oddities).

There’s plenty for newcomers and non-Swedophiles to enjoy though.  Like those collaborative tracks, Spada’s solo work is wonky pop that showcases her unique vocal.  Unlike much Swedish electro that has a sense of icy detachment, Spada’s voice has a rich, R&B tone that’s pleasantly rough around the edges, matching the warm funk synths of the production that flicker over an off-kilter beat.  It starts off slowly with its sub bass and hand clap beat, but soon develops into a sultry slow jam that’s totally idiosyncratic.  Yet another example of the Swedes being ahead of the curve – you wouldn’t hear anything like this on mainstream UK radio.


Listen: Reptile Mission is available to download for free on Spada’s Soundcloud page (see below).

Monday, 17 February 2014

Betty Who - Heartbreak Dream

Yet again, Betty Who continues to prove why she’s a popstar to keep an eye on in 2014.  Heartbreak Dream is the first track from the Australian after last year’s EP, ‘The Movement’, and it’s just as ecstatic and fun as her previous material.

The singer (real name Jessica Newham) is releasing the track just after Valentine’s Day, but despite the title it’s not really a break-up song.  Instead, the lyrics concern a relationship that really should end but neither party has the guts to do it.  And so, just as with her previous songs, the upbeat synth-pop production masks a deeper, more complex emotion.

That said, the chorus is a hook-laden delight that would sit neatly amongst the other tracks on ‘The Movement’, whilst the middle eight is suitably dreamy.  Newham is essentially taking the best bits of Robyn and Katy Perry into one glossy pop package.  The 2014 release for her debut album is eagerly-awaited…


Listen: Heartbreak Dream is released on 18th February.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Lego Movie (2014) - Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Let's not lie, Lego is quite clearly the greatest toy to be invented.  As a child I spent hours meticulously following the instructions of each set (Merlin's castle, obviously), attending to every detail, before setting them aside and...looking at them.

It turns out I've been doing it wrong.  Like me, the protagonist of The Lego Movie Emmet Brickowoski (Chris Pratt) is an adamant follower of the rules.  In fact, his whole life is one long instruction manual with numbered steps for each part of his day.  However, when he's singled out as the 'chosen one' to lead a rebellion against the tyrannical Lord Business (assisted by Wyldstyle - Elizabeth Banks - a sort of hoodied Lego version of Trinity from The Matrix), his structured life is thrown into disarray as the fate of the highly segregated world hangs on his (lack of) creative thinking.

You see, to be a proper Master Builder is to throw away the instructions and use your imagination, mixing and matching from the various 'realms' to create something entirely unique - even if the very thought of that sends your yellow plastic head into a spin.  Of course, you could see the narrative as a metaphor for a modern world of corporate brands and robotic thinking (even the pre-film adverts are remade in Lego blocks), but mostly The Lego Movie is a charming celebration of childhood innocence and creativity.

The narrative, too, rarely follows the rules, instead subverting the usual movie tropes.  Just as with the successful and hilarious video game franchise, the film is one long movie and comic book parody.  No brick is left unturned in the film's pursuit of comedy, resulting in a genuinely funny script with a witty layer of depth that adults will certainly appreciate.  Liam Neeson is instantly recognisable as the Janus-like Bad Cop, as is Morgan Freeman as the godlike Vitruvius and Will Ferrell as Lord Business.  Yet there are plenty more literal nods to the likes of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and DC comic characters (most of all Will Arnett's hilarious Batman - "I only work with black blocks"), whilst the overall plot is a not so subtle send-up of The Matrix.  At the centre of it all is Pratt as the goofy everyman Emmet - a perfect piece of casting following his role in US comedy Parks & Recreation.

It's the visuals that delight most of all though.  Part stop-motion and part CGI, the effect is seamless and wonderfully detailed.  Absolutely everything is built from those tiny blocks, from the buildings and scenery, to fluid oceans and fiery explosions.  There's a beautiful sense of chaos to the visuals, each set-piece full of anarchic joy.  Everything can be destroyed and re-built, from motorbikes to flying craft, pirate ships and spaceships, whilst our bunch of heroes are chased by robotic skeletons, laser-shooting sharks and more.  The film is, quite literally, an insight into the mind of a child, a world where the possibilities of creation are endless, not limited by walls, glue or instruction manuals but by your imagination.  In the words of Tegan and Sara's earworm of a theme song, "everything is awesome".


Thursday, 13 February 2014

Years & Years - Real

A smoky neon-lit club room, a twisted card game and Ben Whishaw dancing like it’s his last night on Earth.

This is the video to Real, the latest track from London electro group Years & Years.  And Whishaw isn’t the only notable actor in the video, least of all the band’s frontman Olly Alexander who appeared in the most recent series of Skins.  As you might expect therefore, the band have a flair for the cinematic, something that spills into their music.

Real follows last year’s ‘Traps’ EP, both released by Kitsuné, though it’s a darker, more pop focused track that merges current trends for moody R&B, deep house and electro, a pulsing hand-clap beat driving the music beneath a yawning, surging bass line and Alexander’s impassioned vocal hooks.  If you imagine a more sinister Sam Smith singing Latch you’re part way there, Alexander’s lyrics the antithesis of Disclosure’s track detailing a torrid love affair that includes the line “I itch all night, I itch for you”.  Creepy.

The result is a darkly sensual club track with incredibly addictive pop hooks.  You will be dancing as ecstatically as Whishaw by the end of it, guaranteed.


Listen: Real is released on 17th February.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

In The Thrice Ninth Kingdom - Thrice Ninth Productions

There are some interesting ideas hidden within In The Thrice Ninth Kingdom from Thrice Ninth Productions.  Writer and director Michael Yale has drawn comparison between global LGBT rights and immigration; the narrative here juxtaposes an illegal, homosexual Russian immigrant entering the UK with a homosexual in Russia being interrogated.  Through its themes of prejudice, homosexuality and immigration, Yale asks us to question our own moral judgements – who is the enemy here?  The man fleeing his country for apparently legitimate reasons, or the officers refusing his entry?

What Yale doesn’t answer is the imperative question: why?  Why are the homosexual characters so mistreated?  Why are the other characters so prejudiced, in particular the ‘British’ characters who are themselves immigrants?

The result is a production that’s all surface and proves to be too shallow.  There is no depth to the characters, they are simply flat clichés who speak in clunky dialogue – Danielle Lautier’s police officer Emma Clarke, for example, is too concerned about paperwork and watching a dog on Britain’s Got Talent to care about the case at hand, with little reason for her prejudice besides a couple of bruises from the arrest.  This extends to the direction – one scene sees a man being beaten accompanied by Lady Gaga’s Born This Way that simply comes across as trite.  Moments like this are clearly meant to be provocative, but are meaningless through the lack of in-depth connection with the subject.

On a technical level too, the script is essentially two interrogations in parallel that move along at a sluggish pace.  For such an intense and harrowing plot, there is a lack of urgency and tension, whilst the actors have difficulty embodying such clichéd characters.

In The Thrice Ninth Kingdom is undoubtedly a timely production, the programme notes going to great lengths to contextualise the story with detailed research.  Yet laying out the facts in the programme isn’t enough.  By failing to fully engage with and question the subject matter, Yale fails to present a unique or thought-provoking viewpoint.  Instead he just aims to shock.  It might be based on nightmarish truth, but this play doesn’t feel believable.


Watch: In The Thrice Ninth Kingdom runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 15th February.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Taylor Swift - The Red Tour @ The O2

When Taylor Swift released ‘Red’ in 2012 (her fourth album), she morphed from country singer to full on international popstar.  Now, she’s sold out five nights at the O2 for the album’s tour, filled to the brim with screaming teenage fans dressed in fairy lights and brandishing neon lit banners.  Her reception was incredible and particularly impressive from a UK audience when her music is so distinctly American.

She certainly hasn’t forgotten her country roots in this transition though.  Her rendition of Mean (from 2010’s ‘Speak Now’) saw her perched on an oversized chest playing the banjo, whilst later an intimate moment on the b-stage saw her perform acoustically, something she’s clearly used to after years performing in local bars and clubs (which we witnessed in video form).  Yet Swift is becoming more and more comfortable with being a popstar, embracing the big production numbers with a flair for the dramatic.  Drummers were suspended from the ceiling; costumes ranged from Hollywood glamour to wind-up ballerinas; 22 saw her goofing around having fun with her dancers; and the euphoric extended rendition of We Are Never Getting Back Together that provided a fitting finale was a circus of enjoyment.  Then there was the gothic wedding style of Trouble (complete with white to black strip as seen at the Brit Awards last year) that accompanied its dubstep breakdown and wobbling, room-shaking basslines – it couldn’t be further from a country ballad.  She can undoubtedly work a crowd with her showmanship – one look to the audience was enough to induce an eruption of cheers.

Moreover, her songwriting has equally matured.  Each song felt like the last song of the night – big, anthemic sing-alongs with fireworks and streamers that emphasised the feelgood party atmosphere.  Swift is a welcoming and charming performer, greeting the crowd with a “nice to meet you, I’m Taylor” as if we’d all just bumped into her at some backstage party.  Her (often candid) lyrics are conversational, something that spills over into her chats between songs.  At times the big sister act becomes a bit preachy as she jokes about turning everything into metaphors, warns about bullies pre-Mean, talks about the price of fame pre-Lucky, and gives a forlorn look to the crowd during All Too Well begging for a collective sigh.

But throughout her performance she is utterly sincere.  Like her lyrics, Swift is an open and honest performer who draws in the crowd and isn’t afraid to show her personality (something lacking from special guest Emeli Sandé).  She is an artist who wears her heart on her sleeve and is totally relatable, whether pouring out her feelings in quiet moments or simply letting loose in the positively joyous 22.  And though her choreography is somewhat awkward, she’s as endearing as the goofy girl at prom.  In this respect she is the Jennifer Lawrence of the pop world – not a distant superstar, but approachable, friendly and real.

Am I the target audience for Swift’s music?  Certainly not.
Should I be listening to your indie record that’s much cooler than mine? Probably.
But do I care? Not one bit.


Thursday, 6 February 2014

Anamanaguchi @ Heaven, London

Anamanaguchi arrived in London from New York (by way of Japan) for this, only their second gig in the UK.  They’re best described as a chiptune rock band, using synthesised sounds from the sound chips of vintage computers and games consoles (namely the NES and Game Boy) in addition to the usual guitars and drums.  In simple terms, imagine the Tetris theme tune with a donk on it and you’re half way there.

The style might be something of an acquired taste, but if anyone can win over noobs it’s Anamanaguchi.  Performing choice tracks from their 2013 album ‘Endless Fantasy’, their 8-bit music is densely textured, hyperactive techno.  Simple, playful melodies are accompanied by heavy basslines, dubstep beats and roaring guitars, the only occasional vocals coming from processed, high-pitched samples.  It’s the sort of music you’d expect to come blaring out of a Japanese arcade in central Tokyo.

Visually, though, there’s a slight disconnect between the predominantly electronic music and the standard band set up – it just looks unusual to see a guitarist but hear a series of bleeps and bloops.  The band champion a sound that’s retro-futuristic and highly regarded within their own niche.  Even for the uninitiated, though, they put on an electric show, surrounded by pillars of neon light and performing in front of a backdrop of psychedelic, kawaii animé imagery.  It’s not the sort of rainbow coloured visuals you’d normally associate with a rock band, but here it works.  As one band member held internships at a number of fashion companies (whilst the other three majored in Music Technology at New York University), it’s understandable that they have a flair for impactful aesthetics and style.

The crowd, too, were suitably eclectic and numerous – from glow stick brandishing ravers, to long-haired emo headbangers who were all “partying like it’s 10pm in summer”.  This may have only been their second UK gig, but the band have already garnered devoted fans.  Gaming enthusiasts will certainly recognise their music from the Scott Pilgrim game, as well as Bit.Trip Runner and Rock Band, but as chiptune music continues to reach wider audiences Anamanaguchi are sure to be at the forefront.

As a whole, the gig was a relentless assault on the ears.  Though ‘Endless Fantasy’ includes a handful of slower tracks and interludes, these were absent from the setlist.  Instead, the band’s aim was clearly to have the audience raving and jumping throughout – a feat they certainly managed.  The effect was positively manic and hugely energetic – enough to make you want to save the princess, defeat the alien hoard, race to first place and catch ‘em all.  You can’t ask for more of a power up than that.


Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Katy B - Little Red

Katy B’s debut, ‘On A Mission’, was a huge success, even gaining a Mercury Prize nomination.  But it wasn’t meant to be a Katy B album.  In a recent interview with Clash Magazine, she noted that “[album producer] Geeneus wanted to put together an album of all of the different Rinse producers. He asked me if I’d be interested in singing over that, and of course I was. After a while, though, it just turned into my album”.  It goes someway to explaining why the album lacks a bit of Katy’s personality, her voice rarely rising above featured vocalist.  Few could deny, though, that the pop-dance crossover had serious potential.

Now, with follow up ‘Little Red’, she’s fulfilled that potential.  Anyone who listened to her four-track ‘Danger’ EP last year will be familiar with her newfound confidence.  Lead single Aaliyah, featuring Jessie Ware, is the only track to make it to the full album – a huge club record with a woman-to-woman, Jolene-esque plea in its lyrics.

‘Little Red’ feels far more like a Katy B record than ‘On A Mission’.  Again, she’s written the songs herself but her songwriting has mostly improved since the immaturity of the last album.  She may still be working with familiar dancefloor tropes ("that beat so sick, that tune so ill" being a particularly terrible lyric), but ‘Little Red’ is a more personal and honest listen – something that’s immediately apparent from current single Crying For No Reason.  It might feature expansive synths and a pounding beat, but it’s very much a ballad with its chorus of “crying for no reason, feel the tears roll down”, whilst the vocal performance soars with more power than before.

The rest of the album comprises plenty of club bangers, again produced by Geeneus.  Lead single 5 AM twists love into a drug (“I need some loving like Valium”), its infectious pulse contrasting with downbeat melodies; I Like You is a coy confession of romance paired with syncopated basslines; All My Lovin’ is a more contemporary take on dubstep; and Everything is a trance-like take on devotion.  As with ‘On A Mission’, ‘Little Red’ fuses contemporary dance styles, but here the tracks lean more heavily on dance than pop for a more serious sound that’s no less appealing to mainstream audiences.  There’s even a glistening duet with Sampha on Play – a futuristic track with a future star.

A late highlight, though, is Emotions – a song that flips the sound on its head.  The beats are muted (until the final crashing chorus at least), leaving only the synth chords to provide a pulse.  It allows her vocal to truly take the fore as she belts out “fill me with emotion” – the effect is truly euphoric.  It’s proof that, whilst she’s settled into a confident groove, Katy B isn’t afraid to change up the formula.  As she sings from the heart throughout, it’s clear that ‘Little Red’ is the personal album that ‘On A Mission’ could never be.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Aaliyah
* Crying For No Reason
* Emotions

Listen: 'Little Red' is released on 10th February.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Pierces - Kings

Over the course of their previous four albums, sisterly duo The Pierces have moved slowly away from their folk/country roots, though their sound has mostly remained a cross between Fleetwood Mac and (in retrospect) the Haim sisters.

With their forthcoming album, ‘Creation’, they’ve tipped over the edge into electronic mode and sound more akin to that more recent sisterly duo, Say Lou Lou (albeit with a bit more oomph to their melodies).  That album title isn’t an accident – after the commercial high of 2011’s ‘You & I’, this is a fresh start for the duo that’s likely to bring their biggest success to date.

That’s not to say The Pierces have forgotten those roots – Kings is full of strong melodic writing, vocal harmonies and some noodling guitar, which all culminates in a grandiose chorus and its sing-along, catchy hook.  The difference, however, is that this solid songwriting is now dressed up in icy synths to give their music an extra sheen of pop polish that’s pretty palatable.

‘Creation’ isn’t due out until June 2nd, but the long wait will surely be made easier by the release of their ‘Believe In Me’ EP at the end of March.


Listen: Kings is available for free now for those who pre-order 'Creation' on iTunes.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Bombay Bicycle Club - So Long, See You Tomorrow

Bombay Bicycle Club seem to operate in their own sphere.  Four albums in and the London four-piece are yet to reach true mainstream success, but, undeterred, they continue to press on.  It's testament to Island Records' confidence in the band that they've been allowed to write, record and produce 'So Long, See You Tomorrow' themselves over the past eighteen months, despite previously underwhelming sales.  Perhaps this is the album that can bring this under-appreciated band the success they deserve?

Following their guitar-focused previous albums, 'So Long, See You Tomorrow' is a more electronic effort, with the use of loops, techno beats and splashes of synths.  Lead single Carry Me is the closest the band have come to a dance track, all lurching syncopated rhythms, punchy brass and that soaring, euphoric middle eight.  It's quite possibly the best track they've produced.  The electronics continue in the processed beats and twinkling synths of Whenever, Wherever (sadly not a cover of the Shakira classic), whilst Come To shimmers with its funk keys.

It's not all electronic though.  Frontman Jack Steadman travelled the world whilst writing the album, moving from Europe to Japan, India and Turkey.  The eclectic influences work their way into each track: orchestral opening Overdone slowly blooms like a sunrise; high brass flutters in It's Alright Now; current single Luna bristles with hypnotic marimba; and Feel has the most explicit Middle Eastern flavour with its snakelike melodies.  It certainly makes for a diverse experience.

Yet it's all instantly recognisable as the work of Bombay Bicycle Club.  In part this is due to the unique vocals of Steadman, but also he's streamlined the band's sound into a sleek, compact ten track package.  That said, the slower songs don't quite have the impact of the funkier, upbeat tracks - Eyes Off You is clearly a more personal track (the production placing Steadman's voice at the forefront of the sound, each lick of his tongue right in your ear), but it's very much a slow-burner.

On the flipside, this album falls into the same pitfalls as their previous albums.  'Flaws' had Ivy & Gold, 'A Different Kind Of Fix' had Shuffle (a personal favourite), and 'So Long, See You Tomorrow' has Carry Me - each album comprising a clear standout track amongst merely good work.  This latest album, however, is a more accomplished, confident and varied body of work.  If this doesn't propel them into the limelight, then who knows what will.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Carry Me
* Luna
* Feel

Listen: 'So Long, See You Tomorrow' is available now.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Soak - Blud

Any regular readers of The Gizzle will know I'm a huge fan of CHVRCHES.  'The Bones Of What You Believe' featured in The Gizzle Review's Top Albums of 2013, an album I still listen to regularly.  Now the Glaswegian trio have set up their own label, Goodbye Records, and Soak is their first signing.

And she couldn't be more different - at least initially.  Where CHVRCHES favour bubbling synth pop, the seventeen year old Derry songwriter (Bridie Monds-Watson) favours an acoustic guitar.  In fact, she played each instrument on Blud herself (except the bass).  She's already drawing comparison to the likes of Cat Power and Joni Mitchell, with her downbeat and brooding songs.

Blud was inspired by the singer overhearing an argument, but melancholy makes way for positivity, the chorus ending with "let's just forget".  Soak is a youthful performer with a strong sense of maturity, her music filled with gritty realism yet sung with a fragile vocal.

It's this that makes Soak a great match for CHVRCHES - raw songwriting simmers underneath their own electro songs.  It should make for an interesting partnership.


Listen: Blud is released on 17th March.