Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Charli XCX - Pop 2

Charli XCX - Pop 2

A big enough name that she commands our attention but not yet in the upper echelons of pop, Charli XCX finds herself in a strange position at the end of 2017. A few months back she stormed YouTube with the gender-bending video for Boys, though it failed to storm the charts in the same way. Before that in March, she released ‘Number 1 Angel’, a brilliant yet under-appreciated release that was perhaps held back by its status as mixtape and not the long-awaited third album.

Now, at the tail end of the year, she’s back with another mixtape: ‘Pop 2’. It’s another chance to experiment with her sound and give us a taste of the “official” album to come, even if it doesn’t provide the big hit that fans are clamouring for.

Over time Aitchison has been slipping further into the PC Music scene: a record label run by A. G. Cook with a hyperactive take on pop, chaotic computerised textures and processed vocals. Cook produced much of ‘Number 1 Angel’ and returns for ‘Pop 2’. And where his influence on the music of Charli XCX has previously been subtle amongst more palatable pop (think the Super Mario chimes in Boys), it’s in full force here.

It’s perhaps most prominent on standout Femmebot, which takes the sound to its literal extreme. “Go fuck your prototype,” she boasts in the verse, “I’m an upgrade of your stereotype” over vibrant production of bleeps and bloops, choppy rhythms and vocals wrenched through a vocoder. She takes on the role of a musical cyborg, supported by Dorian Electra and Mykki Blanco whose rap references Ghost In The Shell. Yet through the sonic frenzy, Aitchison’s songwriting still shines through with a fun hook and robotic tongue in cheek lyrics. She’s the figurehead to take PC Music mainstream.

The pairing of Cook and Aitchison brings a collision of pop and computerised sound, but they’re always in balance. Hooks are cut and spliced together, synth melodies glitter and glow, and samples are overlayed in ways that only a computer could do. It’s a celebration of the computer as a musical medium, but with Aitchison bringing the human songwriting to tie it all together. Delicious is pure euphoria, a trance rave for replicants. The candy-coated Unlock It is an addictive listen. And Porsche sees her fantasising about swapping love for money over hip-hop inspired clipped beats.

That latter track is a collaboration with MØ following 3AM (Pull Up) from ‘Number 1 Angel’. And it’s one of many features on ‘Pop 2’, Aitchison proving her pop credentials by pulling in names like Carly Rae Jepsen, Caroline Polachek, Tove Lo and ALMA. Those last two feature on Out Of My Head, the lead single from the mixtape. It’s probably the most chart friendly of the songs here, but you get the impression Aitchison no longer cares about that. This release is all about experimentation, creating music freely without agenda.

The results are sometimes inconsistent and the PC Music sound is divisive. But the intriguingly titled final song Track 10 is a Pollock-esque splattering of samples that sounds like a demo of ideas, perhaps even a tantalising look at what’s yet to come.

4/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* Femmebot
* Delicious
* Porsche

Listen: ‘Pop 2’ is out now.




Monday, 18 December 2017

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

Animal Crossing. It's a game about making friends with cute furry animals. A game about building a community. A game about customising your appearance and that of your home to reflect your personality.

That's as true with Pocket Camp, the mobile version of Nintendo's series, as it has been since the Gamecube days. You can be whoever you want to be - even wearing a Santa skirt, getting KK Slider the dog to play Jingle Bell Rock and pretending you're in Mean Girls. Sort of.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

At least that's what Nintendo wants you to think. Really, it's pure evil.

For a game about friendship, it sure is materialistic. The only way to impress your fellow campers is to give them stuff - the stuff they demand from you. Maybe that's a poor fish they want to roast alive, a beautiful butterfly they want to hunt down for their "collection", or a fruit from a tree literally right next to them that they're too goddamn lazy to collect themselves.

Animal Crossing: Pocket CampAnimal Crossing: Pocket Camp

The premise of the game is to manipulate these furry little animals into becoming friends with you through the promise of gifts. And what do you get in return? Bits of wood and fluff you use to create new furniture to deck out your campsite and entice your new "friends" to come and visit. Except the demanding little bastards will only visit if you furnish the place with their specific taste in tables, chairs, and bizarre accessories. Something about feng shui apparently.

So who exactly is manipulating who? And what do you get in return? A job reference from a cartoon eagle? For all your work playing Santa Claus, they only ever demand more from you, their cute little faces staring expectantly, the fires of Satan burning in their eyes...

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp]Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp


Animal Crossing: Pocket CampAnimal Crossing: Pocket Camp


Or maybe their eyes are just red from the craving. You see, Pocket Camper is basically an allegory for drug dealing. These cutesy critters are craving and demanding stuff and you are their enabler, using your hard earned cash and materials to build the slickest gangster pad and prove your wealth to the world. I mean, just look at this stoner dog waiting for her next hit, or this hallucinating ostrich...

Animal Crossing: Pocket CampAnimal Crossing: Pocket Camp

Or maybe Nintendo are the real dealers here, delivering a pointless, never-ending quest that's thumb-shakingly addictive. What is the end goal? The animals don't stop coming, manipulation upon manipulation like an Inception of gift-giving that never leads anywhere. And when you can't play on the tube because the game requires a perpetual internet connection and you're stuck watching a spinning loading wheel while this stupid mouse just stares at you blankly and...GAH!

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

I've fallen down the rabbit hole. Someone please make it stop.


Sunday, 17 December 2017

New Music Friday 15/12

Unless you're Beyoncé with a surprise release, you're gunning for Christmas number one, or you're Ed Sheeran featuring on literally everybody's new album, nobody releases much of worth this close to Christmas. Here's a handful of the week's new music...


Anne-Marie - Then

 Anne-Marie - Then

This isn't a proper single from Anne-Marie, but it proves that next year's album will be full of hits. It's a contrast to the fiery Ciao Adios and Alarm, with emotive lyrics and downbeat production driven by handclap snaps and gentle syncopations. She's still waiting for that big breakthrough moment, but she's not far behind 2017's biggest success Dua Lipa...



Lily Allen feat. Giggs - Trigger Bang

 Lily Allen feat. Giggs - Trigger Bang

'Sheezus' didn't quite get the love it deserved, but Lily Allen is back with a new album and Trigger Bang is the first single. With a rapped verse from Giggs, Allen is - as ever - going for an urban sound as she turns her gaze to toxic people in her past, but it's hard to tell whose poorly rhymed lyrics are worse.



Pale Waves - My Obsession

 Pale Waves - My Obsession

Listening to this new track from the Manchester four-piece, it's easy to see why they were chosen to support The 1975 on their North American tour in the summer. The stadium, jangling guitars and pop hooks don't stray far from the template that Matt Healy and co. developed, although there's also something of Chvrches' Lauren Mayberry in the vocals of front woman Heather Baron-Gracie. Yet even with such obvious influences, it's all slickly produced, euphoric as hell and proves the band are worthy of their recent BBC Sound Of 2018 nomination.



joan - tokyo

joan - tokyo

Here's another group working that synth-pop-rock vibe. Here the Arkansas duo are heading off to Tokyo in a rush of crazy love, riding a wave of 80s funk guitars and weird, vibrant electronica. "Don't know what the future holds, I just wanna feel this moment," goes the fizzing chorus - probably their best yet.



Michael Brun - Easy On My Love

 Michael Brun - Easy On My Love

Although best known for his remixes, Haitian DJ and producer Michael Brun has released a string of original tracks this year that blend progressive house with his Haitian roots. Easy On My Love leans more on the former, though the Kompa rhythms prevail. Janelle Kroll provides soulful vocals over the breezy production that's very easy to like.



MGMT - When You Die

 MGMT - When You Die

Moody acoustic guitars, oriental synth flourishes, simple melodies, weird dissonances. This 70s inspired track, the second release from their forthcoming fourth album, is kind of a mess. Yet its psychedelia and brutal lyrics ("Don't call me nice, I'm gonna eat your heart out") are strangely alluring, as is the magical video.



Robinson - Crave You

 Robinson - Crave You

The latest release from New Zealand's Robinson is a sultry, hypnotic track of yearning melodies as she mourns the end of a relationship. It's not a particularly original song, but its evocative, polished and a sign of good things to come.


Saturday, 16 December 2017

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi

The Force Awakens was a clever riff on A New Hope, following a loosely similar structure but with fresh characters as a way of resetting the series for a new trilogy. It offered an opportunity to revel in the familiar, while providing just enough novelty to keep the audience guessing. It worked as a one-off gimmick, but following that the series was in need of something new.

And so, the central theme of The Last Jedi is the idea of severing the past to make way for a bold new future, to fulfil destiny. Except the film, like its characters, is caught in a conflict here, a disappointing stalemate between old and new.

The theme is encapsulated best of all by its central trio of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the returning Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Rey requires the tutelage of Luke to fully awaken her Force powers and reach her potential, but Luke has isolated himself, his trust shattered by Kylo. This narrative provides the film's most satisfying plot points, uncovering the truth of Luke and Kylo's shared past and navigating the shifting balance of light and dark between him and Rey, creating an interesting dynamic between the heroes and villains. Even so, Rey is a bland hero who finds her powers all too suddenly, while Kylo is a petulant and tempestuous teen without the necessary villainous gravitas. Luke, more than anything, is nostalgia personified.

The balance of light and dark is reflected in the visuals too. The Last Jedi is a particularly colourful depiction of the Star Wars universe with cinematographer Steve Yedlin bringing some beautiful visuals. Washed out mystery mixes with glorious vibrancy, from the dizzying space battles, to the sweeping wind-swept vistas, to smoke curling around brooding heroes and villains alike. The final battle on the salt plains of Crait is a particular highlight, every movement throwing up blood-like scarlet debris.

It's colourful for its beasts too. There's a whole horde of new creatures and critters, from the cute little porgs seen in the trailer, to the nun-like caretakers of Ahch-To, the horse racing fathiers, and the crystal fox vulptices. They all lean towards the cuddly and amusing end of the spectrum and bring a light-heartedness that contrasts with the grim-faced protagonists, even if the menagerie - like the film - is bloated.

This also reflects a tonal shift from director Rian Johnson towards comedy. This is, perhaps, the funniest of the Star Wars films, which seems at odds with the serious plot. The script if full of overstatement, cliché and clunky jokes and, although nothing is Jar Jar levels of irritating, it's clear that with Disney at the helm the film is aimed more at children than ever. Despite some amusing individual moments, collectively the film errs too far into juvenile, fantastical silliness. Coupled with the misguided evangelising of Carrie Fisher's Leia Organa, it borders on disrespectful to the legacy of the franchise.

Most disappointing of all, though, is the lack of originality. The Last Jedi is a slave to its trilogy counterpart, The Empire Strikes Back, hitting all the same story beats. There's an opening escape by the Rebels, a Jedi in training with an old master before returning to save friends in peril, a parental plot twist, a siege against incoming walkers. It makes for a film that is crushingly predictable.

Anything that falls outside of these familiar tropes falls flat. The film is for the most part one long set-piece that never goes anywhere, stalling the narrative but without providing necessary characterisation. The focus is on introducing new characters, but too often they're barely developed (Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo or Benicio Del Toro's DJ) or quite frankly ignored (John Boyega's Finn is given too little to do and his ongoing duel with Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma is little more than an afterthought). Where the old swashbuckling films were so successful was in the charm of its cast, but The Last Jedi relies too heavily on that nostalgia in place of developing original characters. Their inclusion here just isn't earned.

As the title scrolls by and John Williams' heroic anthem kicks in, it still sends tingles down the spine. And as a universe, Star Wars still has the ability to entertain and excite with well choreographed lightsaber fights and swooping space battles. Yet The Last Jedi is cripplingly unoriginal and feels more than ever like a cold, empty attempt at extending the lifespan of the franchise for the sakes of nostalgia. The Force, sadly, has grown tired and stale.

3/5

Watch: The Last Jedi is out now.


Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Woman In White @ The Charing Cross Theatre

The Woman In White @ The Charing Cross Theatre

At its heart, The Woman In White is a Victorian mystery. Based on the 1859 novel from Wilkie Collins, this musical treatment from Andrew Lloyd Webber (with lyrics from David Zippel and book by Charlotte Jones) tells a haunting story of abuse, love, and the downfall of a dastardly gentleman at the hands of some vengeful women.

This mystery, however, is wholly predictable - both in its plot and its music. The story remains a fun ride, even with its twists and turns easily deciphered, and Lloyd Webber's score marries operatic grandeur with pop melodies, lush orchestration with sinister synthesisers. That's to say, it's typical Lloyd Webber stuff.

The creative team also pilfer liberally from across musical theatre, but perhaps most of all from Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (and not just for its comedy Italian tenor). It's more ghostly than bloody, but the show has a similarly gothic mood, a complex score of recurring leitmotifs, and a theme of revenge.

This production, directed by Thom Southerland, is the show's first revival since its West End premiere in 2004. Here, in the claustrophobic Charing Cross Theatre, Morgan Large's elegant set design creates an eerie mood, with smart use of sliding screens, and evocative lighting from Rick Fisher creates a gothic chiaroscuro.

Yet the production is pulling in two directions, the horror atmosphere undermined by slushy romance and lyrics that range from sometimes clever to horrifyingly cliché and far from Sondheim's ingenious wordplay. This is the Disney-fied Sweeney Todd, polished to perfection and with comedy too overt to maintain the dark edge.

The lyrics also add little depth to the characters, but this ensemble cast are consistently superb, with brilliant vocals and as much characterisation as the book allows. Carolyn Maitland's Marian is perhaps the most interesting, suppressing her romantic feelings in favour of duty to her sister. But Greg Castiglioni as the eccentric Count Fosco and his showstopping number "You Can Get Away With Anything" is the major highlight.

Streamlined and intimate, this revival is comfortingly safe rather than shockingly thrilling. And with its subtext of victimised women rising up against abusive men, its strangely pertinent this Christmas.

3/5

Watch: The Woman In White runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 10th February.

The Woman In White @ The Charing Cross Theatre

The Woman In White @ The Charing Cross Theatre
Photos: Darren Bell

Saturday, 2 December 2017

New Music Friday 01/12

It's December, it's nearly Christmas and as a gift, 'Reputation' is now available on Spotify. It's far better than most of New Music Friday, but there's the odd gem if you listen hard enough.


Ed Sheeran & Beyoncé - Perfect Duet

Ed Sheeran & Beyoncé - Perfect Duet

These two together is probably the most unlikely duet pairing in music history. But after the snow covered cheese-fest of the Perfect video, it's clear that Sheeran is really gunning for that Christmas number one - dragging poor Beyoncé into the mix is just a desperate attempt to increase that fanbase and wrack up the streams.



Louis Tomlinson - Miss You

 Louis Tomlinson - Miss You

I thought Tomlinson was the dance guy of the 1D alumni? But here he is singing about how hard it is being famous over grating pop punk production. It's clear he just doesn't know his musical personality and is instead releasing this lazy rubbish with one of the worst vocals of the year.



Martin Garrix & David Guetta feat. Jamie Scott, Romy Dya - So Far Away

Martin Garrix, David Guetta, Jamie Scott, Romy Dya - So Far Away

Despite collaborating with three (!) other artists, Garrix has managed to make So Far Away sound like every one of his other tracks. That's to say, it begins with a soft and moody verse before lurching into a rowdy chorus of crashing rhythms and basslines it's very easy to sing Scared To Be Lonely over. Guetta adds some polish and the two vocalists fail to be heard over the cacophony.



Django Django - In Your Beat

Django Django - In Your Beat

For all its weirdness, In Your Beat is perhaps the most accessible of Django Django's singles. Production-wise it's all over the place, but in the best possible way - it's manic joy with a strong vocal hook to tie it all together.



Kiesza & SKYGGE - Hello Shadow

Kiesza & SKYGGE - Hello Shadow

Kiesza came out of nowhere back in 2014 with Hideaway, which turned out to be one of the year's best hits. Hello Shadow marks the return of the Canadian singer and while it lacks the hooks and universal appeal of her earlier work, the big beats are back in full force.



Nick Jonas - Watch Me

Nick Jonas - Watch Me

This is the second song that Jonas has provided for the forthcoming animated film 'Ferdinand' about a Spanish fighting bull. The first was soppy ballad Home that actually has an enjoyable, driving rhythm to it. Watch Me, though, is a sort of funky hip-hop affair that your kids will no doubt be dancing along to during the film's credits. I guess he's being paid a lot for this...



Mahalia - No Pressure

Mahalia - No Pressure

Mahalia came to prominence with the sultry Sober. No Pressure continues her smooth R&B sound, which belies a biting criticism of the music industry: "say no to the yes men, 'cause they're the ones that don't question how you're feeling week to week." It's not a hit, but a strong statement from a rising artist with big things ahead of her.



Kate Boy - True Colours

 Kate Boy - True Colours

Sweden's Kate Boy have been quiet since the release of their euphoric debut 'One'. True Colours is a more subdued affair, but retains their brooding, percussive sound - pulsing beats, synth flourishes, and a vocal from Kate Akhurst that swirls like smoke in the dark.