Monthly Archives: January 2011

Into The Wild

Catching up with some stuff I recorded from the TV over Christmas. Into The Wild, written and directed by Sean Penn, is a true story about a college graduate who reacts against his straight-laced and authoritarian parents by giving away his savings and taking himself off into the wild parts of America: deserts, canyons, forests, mountains. It’s a long, unhurried film and it takes a while to get past your initial impression of the guy as selfish and pompous, but it does feature some wonderful footage of the natural world and some quite touching episodes (he meets a lot of lovely people on the way, and nobody’s out to exploit him). Uplifting, despite the inevitable ending.

C.W.Stoneking at The Relentless Garage, London 26/1/11

Christopher William Stoneking is a thirty-something white Australian singer who appears to have entered into some kind of Robert Johnson style pact with a satanic agency in order to achieve a spookily authentic 1920s delta blues/New Orleans jazz hybrid sound. He sings with the voice of a sixty year old black man, plays banjo and guitar like Elvis never happened and his small band provide spare yet full-blooded backing. His album Jungle Blues was released in the UK in 2010 (although it had been recorded two years previously) and was the most surprising and disconcerting thing I heard that year – after a period of acclimatisation it established itself as a favoured companion and I became curious to find out whether he could replicate this music live. He’s playing a handful of dates, and rather uncharacteristically I made the effort to leave Cambridge for an evening at The Relentless Garage in Highbury.

I’m not sure how much say Stoneking had in who his support act was, but it was a pretty shrewd choice by somebody: there are some similarities in the type of songs the two acts play, but great differences in the presentation. Brownbird Rudy Relic is  a skinny bequiffed New Yorker of Japanese extraction who sings manic ragtime blues on a rather lovely steel acoustic guitar. His only other props are an office chair and a kazoo, which gives the instrumental breaks of his songs something of a Benny Hill feel. This guy is energetic: he came on stage armed with a dozen bottles of water and during his half hour set he’d downed the lot. He spends most of time sitting on his chair but this isn’t anything to do with sedateness, it just affords him to opportunity to provide his own percussion by banging his feet enthusiastically on the stage while he flails around and bellows out his tales of lost love at such volume that the two microphones stationed either side of him are frankly unnecessary. Sometimes he stands on the chair and attempts to walk it across the stage, all the time furiously scrubbing his guitar. Sometimes he spins his guitar round on its axis and fumbles the catch, sometimes he drops his picks, but this is all forgiven because of the passion of his performance. I never saw James Brown, Little Richard or Joe Strummer live, but I can’t believe they ever threw more of themselves into a performance than Rudy does. He’s the most entertainingly physical singer I’ve seen since John Otway.

After a break Stoneking appears, dressed in his trademark white sailor suit and bowtie and carrying what looks like a vintage banjo. His band consist of a trombonist, a cornet player, a string bass player who sometimes swaps his instrument for a tuba, and a drummer armed with brushes. He starts by picking out the slow, skeletal chords of Early In The Mornin and humming in the manner of a negro spiritual before the band join in, the eerie mood giving way to something more lustful when the trombonist plays a phrase reminiscent of a jazz age strip-club. All the playing is technically faultless, but this music seems to go beyond pastiche and I think the key to its authenticity is Stoneking’s extraordinary vocals. It’s like he’s been possessed by the spirit of a genuine 1920s bluesman.

Other songs are more upbeat, but no less vivid, and Stoneking’s carnival master persona becomes more apparent. It’s gratifying, given that his lyrics are often constructed out of tall tales and colourful shaggy dog stories, that we are treated to a couple of highly diverting between-song ramblings involving shipwrecks, hoodoo doctors’ assistants, fortune tellers and disrupted wedding ceremonies. Stoneking’s accent is fascinating: he’s softly spoken, with definite Australian inflection, but sounding in the main like he’s from the American deep South. Sometimes he puts down his banjo and takes up an acoustic guitar, sometimes the band leave the stage and he plays solo. A lot of the material from Jungle Blues makes more sense when heard live –  Talkin’ Lion Blues in particular is suddenly hilarious. There are quite a few songs played from Stoneking’s first record King Hokum, which is yet to be released in the UK. On the evidence of this gig, it’s well worth seeking out.

The band play for about an hour and twenty minutes, ending with the love-charm rouser The Love Me Or Die, there’s a one song encore and then it’s over. Despite my low level anxiety about catching the train back home I could have done with some more. You must see him.

David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell is not to be confused with the comedian of the same name, of whom a distressingly large number of people I know have told me I remind them. This David Mitchell writes gleefully kaleidoscopic novels that typically knit together characters and stories from wildly diverse historical and geographical milieus, and generally feature many different and contrasting writing styles. Cloud Atlas is probably the best place to start with him.

This new novel is comparatively restrained: it takes place, mostly, on and around a specially constructed island off the city of Nagasaki in Japan in the years 1799 and 1800. The island has been built as a trading post between the isolated and insular Japanese and the considerably less refined Dutch, and the delicate negotiations are not helped by the hosts’ insistence on formality or the venal self-interest of the Europeans. The Jacob de Zoet of the title starts the novel as a shipping clerk and is one of the few honest and clearsighted members of the Dutch company, traits which sometimes aid and sometimes hinder his rise through the ranks. During the course of the story he forms an attachment to the unattainable daughter of one of the Japanese officials and a friendship with one of the local interpreters, and goes on to discover some horrendous hidden truths about the mountainside shrine that many young Japanese women have been covertly spirited away to.

The book demands close attention. I have a tendency to gallop through novels and I was finding myself having to backtrack several times in order to check details I’d missed. Important plot points are sometimes concealed within seemingly irrelevant monologues and it’s worth taking your time to read these passages carefully. The preponderance of unfamiliar Dutch and Japanese names also caught me out a bit – by the end I was thinking I might have followed it better if I’d compiled a dramatis personae for myself as I went along. None of this is any fault of Mitchell’s but it’s a good lesson to me not to rush my reading.

Mitchell’s story is in fact a very good one: it’s suspenseful, artfully constructed, features several unexpected reversals and shifts in perspective and it ups the stakes dramatically in the last act. Only the resolution of the final crisis point feels overly contrived. His writing is fluent and witty and he pulls off a number of stylistic experiments that involve interweaving action with internal dialogue. He relishes the opportunity to contrast and clash the two very different cultures and achieves some fine grading of characterisation within them. This is a highly recommended novel – just don’t try to read it with Bargain Hunt on in the background.

Black Swan: crazy about ballet

In Black Swan Natalie Portman plays an inexperienced and highly strung ballet dancer who unexpectedly gets cast in the lead role of a prestigious New York production of Swan Lake. The character starts the film in an emotionally fragile state and she then struggles to cope with pressure from various sources including the ballet’s manipulative and predatory director (Vincent Cassel playing it suave and reminding me of a Gallic Robert Mitchum), her embittered and pushy mother (an incredibly sinister Barbara Hershey) and her own growing paranoia.

This is not one of those films where the subtext is difficult to work out. The lead character’s gradual mental disintegration is graphically underlined by sequences showing her falling apart physically (if you’re squeamish about toenails you might want to prepare yourself) and the ballet’s director actually states on more than one occasion that the dancer will not succeed unless she lets herself lose control and allows her dark side to come out. The narrative trajectory of the piece is made obvious from the get-go and the interest comes from finding out how the inevitable end point will be reached.

Fortunately, given the transparency of the plot, there’s plenty of full-blooded material here to keep you watching. Portman does very well with an extraordinarily demanding role – she’s on screen for at least 95 per cent of the film’s running time, and is frequently either in a state of hysteria or executing complex ballet moves. The film slowly starts to show indications of the dancer’s growing instability: initially some well staged subliminal effects, later there are whole scenes that may have only taken place inside her head. She always seems to be being surprised by unexpected presences or catching unreliable reflections in one of the many mirrors that are littered throughout the film. It’s reminiscent, in a good way, of early Roman Polanski films like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant.

By the time we get to the climactic final half hour all subtlety has been abandoned and you’ll either be willing to give the lurid, but again impressively realised, special effects a free pass on account of the careful hour long build-up or you’ll dismiss it as all being overcooked and silly. I thought it was just fine, and certainly the film held my attention throughout. My only real quibble was that it looked like it had been shot on low-grade digital video, which may have suited the bits set in grimy subways and poky apartments but seemed to sell the ballet scenes short. The Red Shoes, a superficially similar film, was shot in magnificent Technicolor which helped its central dance section astound – here, it’s more like looking at backstage documentary footage.

The Decemberists: The King Is Dead

The King Is Dead is the new album by the artistically ambitious folk-rock group The Decemberists and it stands in immediate contrast to the three albums that preceded it. Starting out with a reasonably conventional indie sound, albeit one frequently augmented by fiddles and banjos, this band has gradually evolved into a kind of prog-folk behemoth, with extended song cycles, heavy electric freak-outs and ten minute faux-medieval ballads and sea shanties rife. If this sounds hopelessly indulgent, it should be noted that they nearly always get away with it, due to band leader Colin Meloy’s great gift as a songwriter, the group’s all-round proficiency and taste, and the sense you get that these sometimes quite lurid epics aren’t really supposed to be taken that seriously.

So the new album is shocking right away to fans of the group for being almost sarcastically straightforward: ten short, disciplined songs performed with flair but without gratuitous ornamentation that last barely forty minutes. Lyrically it’s just as restrained – whereas previous Decemberist albums would have body counts reaching into double figures, with forest spirits, abandoned infants and the ghosts of Civil war soldiers livening up the cast lists, here the words tend towards the rural and seasonal: farms, flowers, snow, rivers. The arrangements fit this theme like a glove: the music sounds variously like The Band, Van Morrison, Simon and Garfunkel (the lovely January Hymn), and most strikingly, REM circa Fables Of The Reconstruction (Meloy must have realised this – he hired Peter Buck to play guitar on a number of tracks).

It takes a few plays to adjust yourself to this new radio-friendly Decemberists (well, sort of radio-friendly, Meloy’s voice will always be a bit of an acquired taste), and initially I was a bit suspicious that this might just be a bit of a commercial cop-out, in the manner of Beefheart’s Unconditionally Guaranteed. But I’ve now been listening to the thing more or less on a loop for two days, and I now put my hands up and surrender: this is fabulous. Not a weak track on it, no compromise involved and it would be just lovely if they could now score a hit single (This Is Why We Fight might be the most obvious candidate, but any song here is worthy). Long live The King.

Big Star: Keep An Eye On The Sky

Big Star were a pop group formed in Memphis, Tennessee in the early 1970s who were very popular with rock critics but made zero impression on the general public. Their lack of success is nothing to do with their music being difficult or experimental (there are a few slightly inaccessible songs in their catalogue, but for the main part they’re as commercial as any stadium filler you could mention), but is more to do with ineffective distribution and promotion of their albums on release and the fact they tended to fall out and disband quite a lot, Spinal Tap style. They’re one of my favourite bands, and all three of their studio albums that came out in the seventies are well nigh essential. The group would go on to be an influence on many much more successful bands, notably REM.

The original personnel of the group featured two songwriters, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, as well as bassist Andy Hummel and drummer Jody Stephens. If this line-up sounds a bit reminiscent of The Beatles, well, that’s kind of appropriate as the music does too – other major influences would include The Byrds and The Who. The first Big Star album came out in 1972 and was titled, with either misplaced optimism or justified wryness, #1 Record. It’s one of the most refreshing and melodic rock LPs to be issued in this period. The songs are perfectly crafted and recorded, with just enough layers of harmonies and guitars to reward repeated listens, but still sound startlingly spare and uncluttered. The two or three out-and-out rockers on the album are the least distinctive tracks (Don’t Lie To Me reminds me of Status Quo slightly), but there are half a dozen acoustic ballads here that should have made the band as big as Fleetwood Mac. The Ballad Of El Goodo, Thirteen and Watch The Sunrise are all unimprovably wonderful.

By the time the second album Radio City (1974) was recorded Chris Bell had left, which significantly altered the dynamic of the group. Bell had tended to be the perfectionist of the outfit, and his departure put the more instinctive Chilton in the driver’s seat. Radio City is just as richly layered as its predecessor, but the tension, melancholy and euphoria of the lyrics has now fed through to the arrangements, which are much rawer and rockier than before. The performances on this album are electrifying – while there are no audible fumbles in the playing, the band often sounds like it’s on the edge of falling apart, and Chilton tends to sing in a high register where his voice sounds in danger of cracking. The songwriting is masterful throughout, with some songs having unusual but effective structures (O My Soul, What’s Going Ahn, Daisy Glaze) and some simply being peerless pop masterpieces (September Gurls, Back Of A Car, You Get What You Deserve) and while the lyrics conform to the standard topic of lost or unfulfilled love, they’re wedded to such powerful music that this time you believe them. This is one of the greatest rock albums ever recorded.

Andy Hummel walked shortly before the release of Radio City, leaving Chilton and Stephens to record the material for the third album with a revolving cast of guest musicians. Chilton’s manic-depressive streak seems to have deepened here, and these songs vary wildly in mood, from the blackest pit (Holocaust, Nightime) to optimistic (Stroke It Noel), from numbed (Big Black Car) to exultant (Jesus Christ, Thank You Friends). The arrangements here are much less obviously rock than before, with chamber string arrangements, piano and acoustic guitars being prominent. Despite the uneven tone these songs are as indelible as those on Radio City, and only the inclusion of a few curious cover versions prevents this collection from being a masterpiece. The album was never sequenced properly and wasn’t released until 1978, three years after it was recorded. It doesn’t even have an official title, usually being referred to as Sister Lovers or just Third. Every subsequent re-release has arranged the tracks in a different order, and other songs from the same sessions have been added at the compiler’s whim.

In 2009 the 4 CD set Keep An Eye On The Sky, a near comprehensive collection of Big Star’s seventies material, was issued. This rounds up all the songs from the three albums and adds a slew of carefully selected complementary material – early solo songs by Bell and Chilton, alternate mixes, demos and twenty songs from a 1973 live performance. It’s obviously a treasure trove to obsessives like me and is close to being definitive. The only niggle is that about half of the songs on #1 Record and three on Radio City have been replaced by different mixes – in most cases they’re close enough to make no odds, but the single version of Watch The Sunrise included here, which cuts off the sublime acoustic guitar introduction, is no substitute for the album version (the introduction in question is present on the box-set in the fadeout of another track, but it’s not really the same). There’s been a handy CD available for years that contains the first two albums back to back and I’d have preferred this to have been included in the box set, even if it meant messing up the strict chronological order of the tracks.

Carping aside, the bonus material here is of an unusually high standard. The compilers deserve much credit for including both sides of Chris Bell’s only solo single, which is proper Big Star music in everything but name and for unearthing early tracks by the band’s early incarnations Icewater and Rock City. Best of all are the many demos for tracks from the second and third albums that are in the form of solo recordings by Chilton, backed only by his own acoustic or twelve-string guitar – the Radio City songs are just as raw and penetrating as the final recordings but in a very different way, while the third album demos show that the weird, fractured nature of the songs on that LP is more to do with the arrangements and recording than the material. Downs in particular is a revelation in this respect. These demos have either been very well preserved or expertly restored as the sound quality is excellent. The live CD is more disposable, but does at least contain some interesting covers (The Flying Burrito Brothers’ Hot Burrito #2 and Tod Rundgren’s Slut) and a full-length version of the mysteriously short ST 100/6 from #1 Record.

So is this a good starting point for those curious about this band? No, not really: it’s fairly expensive, has a lot of tracks repeated in different takes and mixes, and as mentioned above, doesn’t feature every song from the first two albums in its definitive version. Those two albums are currently available from amazon.co.uk for £3.99 each and frankly that’s as good a bargain as you’re ever likely to find. The boxset is however heartily recommended to Big Star fans just for the demos, which made me realise how brilliant these songs are all over again. Why isn’t this band better known?

After Big Star, Chris Bell struggled to get a solo career off the ground and died in a car crash in 1978 after recording one single and an album’s worth of demos, now available as I Am The Cosmos. It’s well worth investigating. Andy Hummel went to college and had a successful business career. Alex Chilton released sporadic solo albums through the late seventies, eighties and early nineties before reforming a version of Big Star with Jody Stephens and two members of indie band The Posies. They released a new album In Space in 2005, which wasn’t bad but hardly measures up to its predecessors. Chilton died in 2010, seven months after the release of the box set and three days before the Radio City line-up of the band was due to play together for the first time in 35 days at a special performance at the South By Southwest festival. They never had much luck. Hummel died a few months later, leaving Jody Stephens as the only surviving member of the band.

The Visitor

Quick mention for The Visitor, a sweet and understated drama in which Richard Jenkins plays a becalmed middle-aged academic who gets a new sense of purpose after he finds two illegal immigrants living in his New York apartment. Jenkins delivers volumes of pathos despite hardly varying his facial expression and having few lines of dialogue longer than “that’s OK”, and the narrative carefully avoids overly contrived conflict. Thanks very much Jack for the recommendation!