Monthly Archives: May 2012

Elvis Costello charges through the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, Cambridge Corn Exchange, 26 May 2012

The Eurovision Song Contest was held last night, which would normally mean that I’d be spending the evening slumped on a sofa surrounded by beer, crisps and despair (my account of last year’s experience is here). This year however I was able to break the cycle by dint of having an opportunity to tick off one of the really major items on my musical to-do list – Elvis Costello was playing Cambridge for the first time in decades, and while the tickets were hair-raisingly pricy he’s one of the few acts I’m genuinely happy to shriek “hang the expense!” about.

I’ve been a fan of Costello since buying Punch The Clock on a school trip to Norwich in 1984, and while I’m not really up to speed with the last few albums put up by this fearsomely prolific songwriter I’m ready to defend his first ten years’ output against all comers. This man must have written more great pop songs than pretty much anybody – Lennon and McCartney, Holland, Dozier and Holland, Carole King, Frank Sidebottom, you name it – and at least one of his records, the ostensibly Stax and Motown pastiching, but in actuality contender for greatest soul album ever made, Get Happy!!, will have to prised from my clammy hands with a sonic lance capable of drilling holes in Saturn’s rings when justice finally catches up with me and sends me to that desert island based containment facility. You get the idea.

For his current tour Costello has resurrected the format that he was using in the mid-80s round about the time of Blood And Chocolate. The stage is dominated by a vast fairground-style rotating wheel upon the fifty or so sectors of which appear the names of either tried and trusted selections from his copious back catalogue or slightly cryptic jackpot categories, such as “Time”, “Girl” or “Crime and Punishment”*. The bulk of the night’s set is thus chosen by members of the audience, who are picked out and led up by the stage by one of Costello’s glamorous assistants: they get to spin the wheel and the band then launch into whatever song the roulette arrow points at when it comes to rest, while the lucky punters occupy themselves either by sipping brightly coloured drinks at a faux cocktail lounge or by jigging energetically in a go-go dancer’s cage. When there are no members of the general public available or willing to provide distraction there’s another glamorous assistant on hand to throw some shapes. It’s an ingenious mechanism that allows Costello to vary his set-lists and provide suspense and visual interest for his audience (even if you eventually start suspecting that the wheel may well be slightly rigged here and there), and also affords him the opportunity to relish his role as a slightly seedy master of ceremonies.

It also has the very useful function of allowing Costello to put on shows of extraordinary length containing several full-on sequences of four or five fast and ferociously delivered songs without physically exhausting his audience. At Cambridge he played for just shy of three hours and must have performed thirty odd numbers, very few of which had anything of the laid-back about them. Incredibly, this is more or less the same band that he was playing with in the late 70s when he was in danger of becoming a regular, if slightly funny-looking, pop star: Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve remain on drums and keyboards respectively, with the only change being Davey Faragher on bass in place of the estranged Bruce Thomas (Thomas wrote a distinctly non-complimentary book about his life on tour with Costello, and the two haven’t seen eye-to eye since). The main man himself must be nearly sixty now, but doesn’t look significantly different to how he did in 1977, or 1983, or any time outside his ill-considered beard years. It’s possible the porkpie hat he sports throughout is there to conceal baldness, but it suits his stage persona just fine. The band open with a blast through a few highlights from Costello’s 70s repertoire, and surprisingly this sets a pattern for most of the evening – I may have just had a lucky night, but it seems that most of the audience selections come from the era I’d consider golden, with amazingly few being unfamiliar to me, presumably because they’re drawn from recent albums. Whether rigged or not, the band tear through this stuff like they’re amphetamine-fuelled teenagers, and while the acoustics at the cavernous Corn Exchange are never going to be ideal for an M.O.  this aggressive you can at least always pick out the singer’s commanding vocals. He may not be your cup of tea, but this guy can really sing, and sometimes you feel he doesn’t even need the public address system.

It’s not all rama-lama mind. A couple of hours in, the band leave the stage and Costello goes acoustic, first on guitar, then on ukulele, playing songs which sound like they started in life in 1930s folk clubs but knowing this songwriter’s fecundity may well be original. It’s a welcome change of pace. He also gives us his soulful, if slightly overwrought, take on the immortal Shipbuilding, which may be his best ever lyric, and the savage, Thatcher-hating Tramp The Dirt Down, which as he points out in one of his many humorous and chatty asides, seems to have become depressingly relevant again. There’s also a startling interlude in the middle of Watching The Detectives where he leaves the stage and wanders through the packed auditorium while chanting like a shaman – presumably he knows his audience demographic well enough by now not to expect any disrespectful invasions of his person.

And then, just before the end, and just as I was inwardly bemoaning the absence of any material from Get Happy!! we get a climactic run featuring not only I Can’t Stand Up and the awesome High Fidelity but 24 carat crowd pleasers Oliver’s Army and Pump It Up. The roof duly comes off, the band take a bow, the lights come up and you can watch the wheel start to be taken apart by the road crew as you shuffle out. The longest gig I’ve been to since I stood in the middle of Wembley stadium watching Springsteen in 1985, but definitely one of the best. Value for money at twice the price.

* It turns out these unlock sequence of songs with a common theme. Last night someone got “Numbers”, which led to Two Little Hitlers, My Three Sons, 45 and so on.

Setlist, included for Costello obsessives only (updated 29/5/12, and should be definitive now. Amazingly, he played no less than 12 of his first 15 UK singles):

I Hope You’re Happy Now, Heart Of The City, Mystery Dance, Radio Radio, Bedlam, Living In Paradise, Big Tears, Shabby Doll, My Three Sons, Less Than Zero, Two Little Hitlers, 45, One Bell Ringing, Accidents Will Happen, Alison, Everyday I Write The Book, (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea, Shipbuilding, Watching The Detectives/Help Me, Clubland, Good Year For The Roses, A Slow Drag With Josephine, Who’s The Meanest Gal In Town Josephine, Jimmie Standing In the Rain, Tramp The Dirt Down, National Ransom no. 9, I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down, High Fidelity, Oliver’s Army, Pump It Up/Day Tripper, What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love And Understanding

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Fear of Folk exhibit A: Penguin Eggs by Nic Jones

Confession: I have a difficult relationship with folk music.

Actually, come to think of it, writing as somebody who likes to regard himself as curious and open-minded with catholic tastes in music and a secret conviction that the number of tracks on one’s ipod is an index to one’s worth as a human being, there are loads of genres I don’t get on with. I think both opera and heavy metal are overwrought and silly, that both jazz and electronica are self-indulgent and irritatingly structureless, that most pre-1900 classical should be confined to the soundtracks of Jane Austen adaptations and that progressive rock is about as fit for public consumption as most other bedroom activities of teenage boys. It seems that if it’s not under four minutes long with verses, choruses and hooks and a beats-per-minute rate of not less than 100 I’m not interested. Basically, I’m a pop song Stalinist.

I have however of late being making a few inroads into alien territory. I’m fine with country and Americana now, having been eased in via brilliant modern singers and songwriters like Neko Case, Laura Cantrell and Caitlin Rose, and since last year I wouldn’t be without my beloved Have Moicy! And I really ought to be able to handle some traditional English folk by now. I mean, it’s got forms and structures that I should be able to relate to, it’s generally pretty stripped down and played on acoustic guitars, which I’ve always got on better with than their electric, effects-swamped counterparts and there are many transparently brilliant people working in the area, like Richard Thompson and Eliza Carthy. But I’ve never really got to grips with it. I think more than anything it’s the wholesome organic authentic vibe of the genre that puts me off, rather than anything specific in the music – I seem to have no problem enjoying folk songs when they’re delivered in a tongue-in-cheek fashion by ironists like Robyn Hitchcock or The Decemberists.

Anyway, this year I’ve taken the plunge and bought a ticket to the Cambridge Folk Festival, one of the most prestigious events of its type in Europe, which I’ve never been to despite living within stumbling distance for the last twenty years. So in order to get the most out of it I’ve embarked on a short acclimatisation course which involves digging out and listening to music by some of the acts that will be playing. All of which leads me finally to the point of this post, namely to talk about Penguin Eggs, the 1981 album by Nic Jones, who will be making his first major appearance for some considerable time at the festival this year.

Jones was a highly respected guitar and fiddle player much in demand as a session player with four previous solo albums under his belt by the time that he recorded Penguin Eggs, but it’s this record that he’s best known for. It contains nine, mostly traditional, folk songs that are presented elegantly and unfussily – for the bulk of the album, the odd backing vocal, accordion or recorder apart, there’s little or nothing to distract you from Jones’s clear, unmannered vocals and really quite extraordinarily adept guitar playing, which carries these songs as effectively as if he’d hired a full danceband. The guitar seems to fulfil both rhythmic and melodic functions effortlessly, with clipped and perfectly accented chord patterns forming the backing for fluid and lyrical runs of notes. I’ve got no idea how he was able to play like this, but there’s no hint of any studio trickery. The songs are pretty good, too, typically stories of rural or nautical misadventure set to sturdy and attractive tunes. After a couple of plays I found I was actually getting a bit obsessed with this record, and it turns out that I’m not the only one to rate it highly: in 2001 it was voted second-best folk album of all time by listeners of the Mike Harding radio show, and its opening song Canadee-i-o has been covered by Bob Dylan. Noted cultural connoisseur Stewart Lee is also a fan.

Nic Jones’s career was brought to a tragic and abrupt conclusion in 1982 when he was involved in a car accident that left with him with brain damage and permanant problems with physical co-ordination, although he’s still able to play the guitar. He’s only recently started giving a few short stage performances, which makes his appearance on the Folk Festival bill a pretty big deal. I’d never heard of him until a few weeks ago, but I’m very glad I discovered Penguin Eggs. Maybe folk ain’t as queer as I thought.

Peter Doggett: You Never Give Me Your Money

A few months ago I posted a fairly sniffy review of Peter Doggett’s The Man Who Sold The World, a minutely researched blow-by-blow account of David Bowie’s 1970s recordings that provided much detail but precious little critical insight about the actual music. I felt a bit bad about this at the time so I’m happy to report that I had a much better time with his earlier book on the gradual break-up, estrangement and afterlife of The Beatles, You Never Give Me Your Money. While this may seem like a pretty depressing subject, what with the greatest pop group the world has ever seen eventually being reduced to suing each other, issuing public slapdowns and in a couple of cases descending into alcohol and substance fuelled torpor for extended periods, it does make for a gripping and dramatic narrative – there was simply no precedent for a band this popular, containing individual members this talented and strong-willed, and when their complicated business arrangements started to get tangled up with personal loyalties and attachments the fall-out started to take on the dimensions of high tragedy, occasionally undercut by moments of absurd farce. John gets distracted into well-meaning but inevitably self-indulgent avant-garde projects when he meets his muse Yoko, Paul’s efforts to stabilise the group by bringing in his father-in-law as a prospective manager are greeted with disdain, and George gets increasingly disillusioned with the material world and withdraws into meditation and non-Western musical forms. It’s actually fairly astonishing how long the group managed to continue recording and releasing singles and albums, and their quality control was never compromised, even when they were barely speaking to each other: the joyless and frustrating January 1969 sessions for the documentary Let It Be still managed to provide enough material for a brisk and characterful soundtrack album, and the sleek, polished and musically highly accomplished Abbey Road has nothing of a death rattle about it, despite the group effectively ceasing to exist only weeks after finishing it.

Doggett charts a clear course through all the complications, reversals and backstabbings, from the start of the group’s studio years in 1967 right up to the present day, taking in such notable episodes as the fiasco of the launch of Apple records and the free-loading that went with it, the appointment of the formidable Allen Klein to look after the business affairs of three of the four Beatles, McCartney’s legal action to dissolve the group, and the deaths of many of the key players, Lennon’s being the most prominent and shocking by some way. The book is written in a measured, accessible style with no-one being painted as either hero or villain, although Lennon does seem to come off worse of all the band members, being variously capricious, hypocritical, cruel and surprisingly naive. There’s lots of fascinating detail I’d never heard before, not least the degree of rapprochement between Lennon and McCartney in the years before the former’s murder – it seems that on a couple of occasions a Beatles reunion was not as much of a hopeless fantasy as I’d previously imagined. The best Beatles book I’ve come across remains Ian MacDonald’s Revolution In The Head for its startingly incisive analysis of their music, but this is probably the best thing I’ve read about their lives after the break-up of the group, and if you’re a fan you ought to give it a look.

Damsels In Distress: nurse, the Chardonnay!

Damsels In Distress, a comedy about a well-intentioned but not necessarily terribly effective group of female students attempting to reform attitudes at a male-dominated US college campus, sounds from its title and description like it might be a bit of a chick-flick, and it’s certainly a film would benefit from being watched with a group of friends (preferably with a bottle or two of wine on hand) but Sex And The City-style slick product it is definitely not. It’s written, directed and produced by Whit Stillman, who has a distinctive approach to character and dialogue that stays just about on the right side of quirky, though I confess it took me twenty minutes or so to adjust to the unusual tone of the thing – I was half expecting the artless philanthropy of the lead characters to be cruelly subverted at any moment, and the unrealistic naivete, idealism or downright stupidity of most of the people on display is initially quite jarring. Once you relax into it though it’s pretty good fun, with jokes about tap-dancing classes at a Suicide Prevention Centre and the redemptive powers of cheap motel soap played surprisingly straight and a lot of the normally obligatory frat-boy gross-out humour of this kind of comedy gratifyingly absent. Greta Gerwig’s saintly but slightly otherworldly Violet starts out as the lead character, but as the film progresses we gradually get to see events more from the point of view of the much more grounded Lilly (Analeigh Tipton), with the two other florally-named girls Rose and Heather mainly there to provide running gags. The plot moves along briskly, boyfriends become unreliable, secrets get exposed, everyone is redeemed without getting hurt too much and the film wraps up in ninety minutes with some pleasingly non-professional dance routines. This is hardly a classic, but I’m sure it will be providing folks with perfectly fair Friday night entertainment when it comes out on DVD.

The Turin Horse: rider of the apocalypse

My last entry, on Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, included a cheery affirmation that the film was definitely not a gruelling and austere arthouse folly. I’ve got to tell you know that I make no such guarantee for Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr’s new film The Turin Horse. One of the first subjects I wrote about on this blog, and indeed one of the reasons I started the thing up in the first place, was Tarr’s 1994 epic of mud, drunkenness and venality Sátántangó (read all about it here), which I’d become fascinated with despite its many offputting characteristics (its preposterous length, its slowness, its opening eight-minute shot of cows milling around by some sheds). I can’t quite nail down why I’m so taken with this sort of thing, but it’s something to do with the sheer anti-commercial bloodymindedness of it, coupled with the skill involved in pulling off long and complicated tracking shots which never lose focus or compromise compositions. This stuff takes time to assemble, witnessed by the scarcity of Tarr product since 1994 – just two films, the mysterious, beautiful and unsettling Werckmeister Harmonies, which is probably your best entry point if you want to sample this highly idiosyncratic style of film-making, and the Georges Simenon adaptation The Man From London, which is in Tarr’s terms a shameful sell-out, featuring as it does an intelligible plot (something about a working man stumbling across a hold-all of ill-gotten money, much like No Country For Old Men), properly motivated characters and even, in the shape of Tilda Swinton, an actor familiar from mainstream Hollywood movies.

And now here’s another, The Turin Horse, and possibly as a reaction to the perceived compromises of his previous film it’s Tarr’s most hardcore and alienating project yet. The director has said that this will be his last film and indeed it’s difficult to see where he can go from here: a five hour single take of an apple core slowly going rotten or a film forming on the surface of a mug of tea maybe? There doesn’t in fact seem to be much point even writing about it, as a vision this stark would appear to be hermetically critic- and review-proof, but I’m going to go for a bare description anyway, if only so I’ve got a record of a remarkably singular experience.

The film starts with a black screen and a voiceover that explains the title: in 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed a coachman flogging his horse in a Turin street, and this incident seemed to provoke the philosopher’s subsequent nervous breakdown that rendered him speechless and bed-ridden for the last eleven years of his life. This sounds potentially pretty interesting, but has scant relevance to what follows in the film: with a perhaps expected perversity Tarr chooses to show what happened next to the horse and its owner rather than Nietzsche. And what happens next is more endurance test than history lesson – the action (for want of a better word) plays out over six days, and at times feels like it’s being shown in real time.

The coach driver returns to his home, an isolated and rundown farmhouse in the centre of a dip in a fairly featureless rural landscape. He lives there with his grown-up daughter, who every day helps him dress and undress (he has the use of only one hand), struggles out to a well to fetch two buckets of water, washes clothes and prepares a meal consisting of one boiled potato each, eaten with their bare hands. The rest of their time is spent trying to persuade the horse to tow a cart, or eat, with no success, drinking some dubious-looking spirit or looking out of a window at the relentless gale that shows no sign of ever letting up. They hardly ever speak, apart from an occasional profanity when frustrated by one of the chores and a perfunctory “it’s ready” to signal meal times. We start to get clues that all is not right with the world beyond this tiny universe – a neighbour barges in at one point to cadge alcohol from them and spout a portentous analysis of the failings of society, the nearest town having apparently gone to ruin, and later an unruly cartload of travellers turn up to avail themselves of the well, seemingly now a rare source of water – but options for the man and his daughter are limited, and a half-hearted attempt to leave comes to nothing. Eventually even basic elemental phenomena like water, light and fire fail, and the film ends with a tableau that even Samuel Beckett might have found a touch harsh and nihilistic. All the scenes in the film play out in single takes averaging about five minutes each – 30 of them in total (I know this for sure. I was counting). Some of the takes are accompanied by a dirgy waltz scraped out on violins, some are more or less silent apart from the incessant sound of the wind.

So what’s the point? What’s the appeal? Why would you possibly want to spend two and a half hours in a dark room watching the universe slowly grind to a halt like this? Well, partly it’s because despite all the unremitting salvation-denying bleakness of it all this is one beautiful film to look at: it’s consistently brilliantly composed and lit, with the high contrast black and white cinematography serving the various rugged and striated textures on display to maximum effect, be it the rough brickwork of the farmhouse, the matted mane of the harbinger horse, the knots and lines of the wooden tableware or the magnificent lines and crevasses of the wild-haired old man’s face, which looks like it’s straight out of a Caravaggio painting. Partly it’s the craft with which the film-makers have executed these extended vignettes – the most striking example is the very first shot in the film, in which the old man is riding his cart at a gallop back to the farmhouse. It’s the most dynamic scene in the film by some distance, with the point of view wheeling miraculously from directly under the horse’s head to several metres away behind roadside trees and shrubs to show the cart’s progress in profile and back again. I can’t begin to imagine how a camera move like this can be achieved so fluidly.

Whatever the reason, The Turin Horse does in the end succeed in being a profound experience rather than just a depressing one, although it’s not in all honesty a film I could possibly recommend as conventional entertainment. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the week since I saw it, anyway. I guess Béla Tarr’s mission on Earth is now complete, and at least he can say he gave us fair and due warning.

Dersu Uzala: Kapitan, my Kapitan!

Big respect and thanks are due to the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge for screening a 70mm print of Akira Kurosawa’s little known Dersu Uzala last weekend. This film is a real oddity in the CV of its celebrated director – Kurosawa’s fame is due to the string of classics he directed in the 50s and 60s, most notably Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress (a direct influence on Star Wars), but by the 70s his fortunes had turned and, unable to get funding from the Japanese studios for his epic projects, he shot Dersu in Russia in collaboration with Mosfilm. It’s therefore the only Kurosawa film not to use the Japanese language and the only one to feature a predominantly Caucasian cast.

You don’t need to know any of that however to enjoy this film. While its title and description (an early 20th Century army captain is sent on a mission to chart remote regions of Siberia, where he enlists the aid of a local trapper) might lead you to expect a gruelling and austere arthouse folly, Dersu turns out to be charming and accessible, the sort of thing the BBC should be showing every Christmas to promote goodwill among mankind. The story couldn’t be simpler, with the film presenting a series of testing episodes during which the formally-trained but resourceful and open-minded Captain Arseniev and the ostensibly uncivilised but highly observant and never recklessly impulsive Dersu find their mutual respect and affection deepening. There are no sub-plots, no villains or unsympathetic characters, no metaphors and no subtext even, and its a blessed relief – apart from anything else, the stunning locations shown here really don’t need any spurious dramatic help to hold our attention. With the exception of a few short scenes towards the end of the film, we’re outdoors in completely natural environments all the time: autumnal forests, mighty rivers, ice floes and in the movie’s pivotal sequence a forbidding and seemingly infinite stretch of tundra, upon which Arseniev and Dersu are forced to desperately fashion an ad-hoc shelter out of reeds when it becomes clear they won’t have time to get to cover before night draws in. This scene is intensely dramatic and entirely convincing and shows that Werner Herzog doesn’t have a monopoly on capturing extreme natural circumstances on film.

Dersu Uzala is a joy, with its overall positive humanist message allowing one to forgive its occasional dips into mawkishness, and it’s the kind of film that just wouldn’t get made these days due to advances in technology and altered expectations of audience sophistication. The 70mm presentation beat my DVD hands down, both in terms of picture quality and sheer scale – a film like this really needs to be seen on the biggest screen available. Old movies should never die. Not if they’re as lovely as this one.

P.S. Apparently this is comedian Sean Lock’s favourite film. Good for him.