Wednesday 29 March 2017

Betty Who - The Valley

Betty Who - The Valley

There's a parallel universe somewhere where Betty Who's debut album 'Take Me When You Go' got the recognition it deserves, where she's known as Betty Who and not Betty...Who?

As it stands, though, she's hovering in the pop niche, just on the verge of the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, Robyn and Katy Perry. 'The Valley' should change that.

At first listen, it's a similar, fizzy-pop affair that does little to progress her sound from her debut. Buoyant funk rhythms, bright pop hooks and infectious production are in abundance, alongside simple lyrics that occasionally border on saccharine cliché.

But like those other artists, there's more going on here. The opening title track initially seems out of place - an a capella gospel ballad sung in a hushed, low register - but it sets up the heartbreak that simmers throughout the album. "I know that you don't love me anymore," she repeats at the start, layered with harmony. It's an arresting, nostalgic start, but we soon lurch into the bubbly, boisterous Some Kinda Wonderful. On its own, its an effervescent pop track, but after The Valley it feels more like a memory of a past love, tinged with subtle sadness.

From here, the album is a mix of fizzing positivity and upbeat sadness, though whether this is reminiscence or new love is ambiguous. Best of all is when these worlds collide: "when you hear our song at least pretend you're missing me" she pleads before her heart erupts into a neon drop that crackles and sputters angrily on Pretend You're Missing Me. Eventually Who does move on from past heartache with Make You Memories and Reunion, whilst penultimate track Beautiful rounds off the album with a self-empowerment 70s funk anthem that's pure joy.

Or maybe this narrative doesn't exist and 'The Valley' is simply a collection of great pop songs. The influence of other artists is clear and the lyrics are littered with references: Mama Say is Who's ode to Britney Spears, whilst Reunion has a nod to Adele ("I tried to call a thousand times but I'm so bad at apologising"). It even ends with her cover of I Love You Always Forever by Donna Lewis. The love songs and the heartbreak and the self-empowerment are your typical pop staples, but unoriginality be damned. They're done here with such confidence and polish it's impossible not to crack a smile.


Gizzle's choice:
* Some Kinda Wonderful
* Pretend You're Missing Me
* Beautiful

Listen: 'The Valley' is out now.

Sunday 26 March 2017

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds - Nintendo

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds - Nintendo

It was at Spaceworld 2001 that Nintendo first unveiled the cartoon style of their then latest Zelda game, The Wind Waker. It was quickly dubbed 'Celda' as the people bemoaned their precious series transforming into what they perceived to be a kid's game.

Yet the Zelda series had always been a cartoon. 1992's SNES classic A Link To The Past is remembered as a hardcore adventure, but its art style was far from adult. Fast forward to 2013 when Nintendo released A Link Between Worlds for the 3DS, a game that takes the art of A Link To The Past and updates it for a modern audience.

The result is the kids aesthetic we always feared. Zelda, Link, Ganon et al look more cutesy than ever. There's a whimsical, fairytale feel but it lacks the distinction of the varying art styles of the home console games and instead feels bland and uninspired.

In combination with the twee and saccharine story, A Link Between Worlds feels like a Zelda game aimed at children. Link must traverse Hyrule and its dark parallel Lorule to save seven sages (given little introduction) who have been turned into paintings by the evil wizard Yuga. Link himself is disappointingly a characterless and silent cipher, while the remaining cast are given simple, clichéd dialogue. The game even prompts you to stop playing after a while to rest your eyes, like your mum would do when you were eight years old.

The kiddy image is intriguing when much of the game's appeal lies in nostalgia. A Link Between Worlds is a direct sequel to A Link To The Past, with the same art style, a world map and enemies that are practically identical, a story with similar beats and recognisable music. At times it does spark warm and fuzzy memories - a literal link to the past - but mostly it's disappointingly overfamiliar. On discovering a repeat of an infamously annoying boss at the top of one dungeon - that giant cross eyed bug thing *shudder* - I felt simultaneously comfort and despair.

Getting there, however, is a joy. That's because this Zelda features some of the most enjoyable dungeons in the series. Their names do repeat the past and often riff on familiar ideas - the multiple levels of the Tower of Hera; the rescue mechanic in Thieves Hideout; the exterior/interior dynamic of Skull Woods. And yet the designers have twisted the familiar. Each dungeon offers theme and variation, with clever puzzles just on the right side of tricky as you change water levels, manipulate columns of sand and use darkness to your advantage. I wasn't stumped for long in each relatively short dungeon but completing them was immensely satisfying.

The art may be childish but the use of 3D brought out the child in me. The world is like a little toy box to be played with and the 3D heightens the gameplay. This is to Zelda what Super Mario 3D World is to Mario, proving the worth of the console's 3D effects. Link falls to his death through the screen or leaps out of it before your eyes, and the puzzles make great use of this new depth. Enemies do too: the bosses often have an obvious weak spot (it's the eye!), but their imposing nature is enhanced by the 3D. And never have Floormasters been scarier, those creepy hands that hover over the screen before slamming down on top of you.

But it's perspective as a whole that the designers played with. The main twist for this game is Link's ability to turn into a 2D image to walk along walls, allowing for an extra layer to consider when solving puzzles. It adds up to an incredibly satisfying adventure with depth to its visuals as well as its gameplay. Rarely has a handheld game felt so immersive.

However, the game's attempts to shake up the Zelda formula are ironically flat, with changes to the structure that don't push the boundaries far enough. Dungeons can be completed in any order, creating a welcome freedom of progression, but instead of your weapons being discovered in the dungeons, they are rented from a cheeky chap in (what else?) a bunny suit. Die and you're forced to hand them back.

This is meant to add tension and allow for creativity in Link's equipment, though in execution this isn't a success. Each dungeon still focuses on one weapon which is usually signposted on entry. Is there really much difference between finding a weapon inside a dungeon rather than renting it beforehand? Rupees are spread liberally around the world, so soon you'll have enough cash to buy the weapons permanently instead, negating any fear of death. And rarely does the game reach the high difficulty of its predecessor. That'll keep the kids happy.

As Link traverses dark and light, 2D and 3D, Nintendo traversed old and new with A Link Between Worlds. The changes it brought weren't enough to refresh the series - fans would have to wait for Breath of the Wild for a true breath of fresh air. Yet as a fun and clever little puzzle-adventure game, A Link Between Worlds does the Zelda name proud.

Wednesday 22 March 2017

Zara Larsson - So Good

Zara Larsson - So Good

Zara Larsson is quite the opinionated popstar. The Swede's Twitter and Instagram feeds are filled with feminism, swears, memes, cute selfies and a distinct lack of bullshit. Throw in the fact that the best pop music is made in Sweden and Larsson really is a cool, youthful popstar for our times. Her millions of social media followers would certainly agree.

How, then, is 'So Good' so average?

It's the sound of a winning personality and decent vocalist being sucked into a personality vacuum. If Larsson is the quintessential 2017 popstar, then this debut is something of a tick list of trends. I Would Like is the cheeky sex jam. So Good is a pop song in the Ariana Grande mould that's so breezy it simply wafts by uneventfully, with a Ty Dolla $ign rap to boot. Sundown taps into dancehall flavours. Ain't My Fault is standard R&B pop fare.

None of these are bad songs. Far from it - 'So Good' is full of solidly constructed pop with polished production. And with almost all the tracks ending around the three minute mark, they come and go easily enough. It makes for an enjoyable listen, but it's empty. What's missing is Larsson. Much of the album could be sung by any other generic singer and be no less enjoyable. Where's the wit and sass we've come to expect?

A few songs do capture Larsson's essence. Breakthrough hit Lush Life was one of 2016's best pop tracks, Larsson living life "the way I wanna" over buoyant rhythms. The sad-pop TG4M looks to Robyn's Dancing On My Own for inspiration. The raw vocal of Funeral mirrors a relationship being torn apart. And Never Forget You, released with MNEK, remains a banger. Yet when one of your best tracks was released two years ago, there's a problem.

These tracks hint at the popstar potential of Larsson. But it's ironic that it all ends with the brilliantly euphoric Symphony - a Clean Bandit track on which she features, released on the same day. The inevitable success of that track will likely overshadow this album, but Larsson deserves to be more than a featured artist. 'So Good' just doesn't quite cut it.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Lush Life
* TG4M
* Symphony

Listen: 'So Good' is out now.

Sunday 19 March 2017

The Frogs @ Jermyn Street Theatre

The Frogs @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Just last week theatre critic Lyn Gardner's column was cut from the Guardian website, one of many examples of cuts to arts funding from all sides in a time of political uncertainty, when really we need the arts more than ever. The Frogs, then, couldn't come at a more timely moment.

Based on a 405 BC comedy from Aristophanes freely adapted by Burt Shevelove and "even more freely adapted" by Nathan Lane with music from Stephen Sondheim, it's a musical that truly celebrates the arts and receives its UK premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Set simultaneously in modern day and ancient Greece (yes that's correct), the narrative follows the god of drama and wine Dionysos (Michael Matus) and his slave Xanthias (George Rae) as they travel through the underworld to bring George Bernard Shaw (Martin Dickinson) back from the dead. Why? Because humanity will find solace in drama, saving the modern world from political strife (this modern version was written following the events of 9/11).

It's a singular political message that cleverly mirrors Aristophanes' work while updating it for a contemporary audience, filled with witty references to politics, musicals and culture. Each scene on the journey is a vignette that takes us deeper into the underworld, from a burly Herakles (Chris McGuigan), travelling aboard Charon's boat (Jonathan Wadey, having a lot of fun with the Johnny Depp meets Beetlejuice characterisation), a chorus of frightening frogs, through to a dominatrix Pluto (Emma Ralston). The show's climax is a wonderfully acted battle of words between Shaw and Shakespeare (Nigel Pilkington) to determine which playwright is most worthy to return to Earth. The theme of artists connecting across life and death adds a meta layer to the show that reflects the collaborative efforts of the writers and composer.

This may not be Sondheim's most original score, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. There are plenty of Sondheim-isms, from the wordy melodies (which the cast occasionally stumbled on) to the contrapuntal textures. There's more than a touch of Into the Woods here, while the frog chorus is suitably frightening and contrasts with some lush chorale singing.

Gregor Donnelly's set and costume design keeps things simple and modern with a few nods to Ancient Greece and director/producer Grace Wessels ensures this is a stylish and mostly polished production in the confines of the small theatre. It's certainly deserving of a larger space to fully-realise the imaginative scenes.

It's bookended, however, with scenes that directly address the audience. They may reflect Aristophanes and they may be entertaining, but they're also a little patronising and unnecessarily implore the message of the musical. It's important to ensure that art doesn't exist within a bubble, but The Frogs is essentially artists patting the backs of artists and it comes off as a little self-aggrandising. Yet with its layers of morality, philosophy and wit, it remains a deliciously intellectual production.

"Smile on us and bless our show", the cast sing to the audience in the opening number. Well I smiled plenty, so - for what it's worth - consider yourselves blessed.


Watch: The Frogs runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 8th April.

The Frogs @ Jermyn Street Theatre

The Frogs @ Jermyn Street Theatre
Photos: David Ovendon

Saturday 11 March 2017

Charli XCX - Number 1 Angel

Charli XCX - Number 1 Angel

What's the difference between a mixtape and an album? Gone are the days of recording songs off the radio and on to a cassette to listen to later or impress a potential date. In hip-hop terms, a mixtape is generally an independently created and released recording, but nowadays it's pretty synonymous with the album. Except if it underperforms, wasn't the "proper" album, right?

That's a shame because 'Number 1 Angel', Charli XCX's new mixtape, deserves to be considered a full album alongside 'True Romance' and 'Sucker'. This is more than just a stopgap until the next album. It marks a consolidation of her past records whilst looking to a new future.

Really, the mixtape label hints at the hip-hop influences on much of the record. The provocative cover alone drips with audacious, sexualised glamour, before opening track Dreamer sets a moody tone with its deep, booming synths, trap beats and rap-singing. Blame It On You, White Roses (a nod to Black Roses from her debut?) and Drugs all riff on the same sound, creating a structured sense of continuity and mirroring Aitchison's sexualised image. Features from Uffie, Abra and CupcakKe only add to the underground authenticity.

The darker sound also harks back to her debut and its gothic edge, but really 'Number 1 Angel' is packed with the pop hooks we've come to expect from Charli XCX. Babygirl fizzes with 80s glitter and juicy basslines, whilst ILY2 has a stomping rock vibe reminiscent of 'Sucker' that Sky Ferreira would be jealous of. Elsewhere, MØ - something of Aitchison's Danish equivalent - crops up on the buoyant 3AM (Pull Up), Roll With Me is full of vibrant, stabbing synths, and although Brit producer SOPHIE's influence (said to be involved in Aitchison's third album) is in much of this mixtape, it's most pronounced in the kinetic textures of closer Lipgloss.

Is 'Number 1 Angel' that third album in disguise, an album in mixtape clothing? It's clear that Charli XCX is an artist with a wealth of varied influences and a willingness to experiment. If this mixtape is just a quick release before the main event, it's deserving of a lot more fanfare.


Gizzle's Choice:
* ILY2
* Babygirl
* Lipgloss

Listen: 'Number 1 Angel' is out now.

Friday 3 March 2017

Ed Sheeran - Divide

Ed Sheeran - Divide

Only Ed Sheeran could open an album with a grime track and end it with the soppiest of ballads.

In truth, all of his albums have been divided between opposing styles: the hip-hop influenced loop pedaller and the cheesy balladeer. Only now, on 'Divide', it's simply pronounced in the title. Predictably enough it's something of a mixed bag, an everyman singer serving everyone but lacking edge - a fitting metaphor for current British music from British music's biggest export in 2017.

For all the pomp of division, this album is remarkably safe. A handful of tracks may present a change of style, but really 'Divide' only nudges towards the boundaries of Sheeran's sound. That he can take varied genres and make them his own is impressive. That it still all sounds so familiar is a disappointment.

That's mostly true of the ballads, which merge social realism with a typical folk-tinge. Lead single Castle on the Hill set the tone here, merging reminiscence with U2 stadium guitars; later there's Supermarket Flowers, simple storytelling that's a clear ode to Sheeran's family. In between there's the likes of Dive, Perfect and How Would You Feel (Paean) - they're all nice enough songs, but as tearjerkers they're all so calculated towards the Adele demographic. Not even his raspy vocals can hide the schmaltz.

The exception is Happier, where Sheeran hits the jackpot of storytelling and Adele simplicity (even if it sounds a bit like Sam Smith). "Ain't nobody hurt you like I hurt you, but ain't nobody need you like I do," he sings in light falsetto over gentle guitar arpeggios, "baby you look happier, you do". It's a touching moment of acceptance that doesn't sound like he's trying too hard.

On the flip side are the uptempo tracks that borrow liberally from contemporary pop, sounding safely and inoffensively within current tastes. He spits rhymes on Eraser; he taps dancehall sounds on pop standout and other lead single Shape of You; he rap-sings verbosely over funk guitars on New Man, a song that could easily fit on any of his albums. This divider is a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

Yet we also get to hear Sheeran having some fun amongst all the tears and the relatability and the authenticity and the coolness. Galway Girl mixes rap with an Irish jig and some cheeky fiddle, something that makes a return on the folky Nancy Mulligan. Bibia Be Ye Ye is Sheeran's attempt at recreating Paul Simon's 'Graceland' album, inspired by his travels to Africa soon to be broadcast on Comic Relief. And Barcelona is just pure joy, with its infectious rhythms, whistling chorus and Spanish silliness in the final chorus.

It's on these tracks that Sheeran drops the authentic musician act, stops trying to sell records, stops trying to please everyone and just has fun. You get the impression that it's here we see the real Ed Sheeran.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Shape of You
* Happier
* Barcelona

Listen: 'Divide' is out now.

Swifties @ Theatre N16

Swifties @ Theatre N16

Much has already been written about Taylor Swift's particular brand of feminism and popstar appeal. On the surface she seems genuine and relatable, singing songs of bullying and young love that immediately click with her young fans. But is this all narcissistic? When she connects directly with fans, is it only to boost her own image? Is it even possible to be simultaneously grounded and a flawless pop icon? And how does this star-fan relationship affect the psychology of her fans?

These themes are the focus of Swifties, a loose adaptation of Jean Genet's The Maids that sees two girls idolising Taylor Swift to the point of fetish. Whilst waiting at a meet and greet competition, the girls play out some strange fantasy where they get to become "Tay" - singing her songs, mimicking her style, and re-enacting her life. Yet this eventually devolves into a bizarre rape/murder fantasy involving Swift's (now ex-lover) Calvin Harris and a plot to kill Swift that inevitably goes wrong. The girls are highly unpredictable as they flit between sweet friendship and nastiness. Is this meant to reflect the sort of relationships young girls have with one another? And is this really the fault of Taylor Swift?

Between them, the girls represent two extremes of feminism. One seems brainwashed by the niceties of Swift's generosity and longs to be part of her "squad"; the other is more radical and violent in her approach.

Yet both come across as immature and irritating, meaning what's meant to be a chilling and profound piece of theatre is just silliness. The cartoonish acting of Isabella Niloufar and Tanya Cubric - whether intentional or not - undermines any semblance of sincerity, whilst Tom Stenton's script clunkily steers the drama with the finesse of a GCSE drama improvisation. It leaves these two girls as wholly unlikable and the audience either amused or bemused by their psychological drama.

Two sweet young girls drawn to terrible things by their adoration of a popstar. They're a nightmare dressed like a daydream, but for all the play's lofty aspirations we're simply left with a blank space, baby.


Watch: Swifties runs at Theatre N16 until March 11th.

Swifties @ Theatre N16
Photo: Luke Davies