Monthly Archives: March 2012

Field Music – Plumb

The sleevenotes of Field Music’s current album, Plumb, which is their fourth, sort of, contain a very Nick-friendly statement:

“In order to preserve sonic fidelity, this record has been mastered using significantly less compression and limiting than most contemporary records. For maximum listening pleasure, please turn your stereo system UP!”

I bought Field Music’s eponymous debut album back in 2005, listened to it once or twice, and filed it away, too overwhelmed that year by Bloc Party, Patrick Wolf, British Sea Power and Roots Manuva to really take in anything else. I didn’t think of them again until November last year, when I moved into an office with a room-mate who likes to listen to 6music. I now also like to listen to 6music (admittedly so that I can moan about how often they play There She Goes by The La’s, or Slight Return by The Bluetones).

One of the first (new) songs I noticed on 6music was (I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing, which seemed to get pretty heavy rotation around Christmas time, and which infuriatingly reminded me of about 3 or 4 different things that I couldn’t quite place. I’ve since concluded that one of these things is the big, crashing, dramatic chord turns of Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, and I remain convinced that one of the others is a brief moment from Forever Changes, though I can’t identify which bit.

That the other reminder is a vague sense of British postpunks aiming for krautish repetition is a deal-sealer for me; the first two signifiers on their own could make for a boring, melody-festishist retro soup, but a squeeze of Germanic rhythm makes for just enough juxtaposition to keep things interesting.

A couple of months later, another Field Music song caught my attention on 6music; second single A New Town didn’t seem a million miles away from (I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing, but had enough of a different aura to not be a rehash (and, frankly, some astonishing drumming). I was intrigued for an album, and a couple of days after Plumb was released, curiosity got the better of me and I picked it up from HMV on the way home. I’ve become suspicious of indie guitar albums released in the first few weeks of the year, as they often seem to be over-hyped, “nothing else to write about” releases strategised by record labels to garner maximum attention for minimum content (hello Maccabees).

But Plumb wasn’t that at all. 15 songs in 35 minutes suggests schizophrenia, but The Beatles managed it time after time, and, frankly, I’m very much in favour of artists having ideas and using them, as long as they don’t over-use them; Plumb manages that, with aplomb. As hinted at by those two singles, it’s a little bit of postpunk groove, a little bit of post-McCartney melody, and a whole lot of really gorgeous songs and smart lyrics. There’s a whiff of prog in there perhaps too, from some arrangements being lavished with strings and pianos and brass (and occasionally a vocal melody and delivery, as on A Prelude To Pilgrim Street) which are redolent of Pink Floyd or ELO, to changes of time-signature and direction that can leave your head spinning; but it’s a very poppy type of prog, a little British music hall, maybe. Think Abbey Road, I suppose.

It’s also something about the way that the songs often run into each other, something about vocal or orchestral interludes (I do not use the term pejoratively in the slightest, by the way) like How Many More Times? and Ce Soir (which could be Final Fantasy to start). Every song has something interesting, or, quite often, deeply affecting about it, at the very least; often both together, like on Just Like Everyone Else, which combines a tight krautrock pulse with a combination of words and delivery that puts a lump at the base of my oesophagus every time. Likewise Choosing Sides, which puts choppy guitars and drums underneath the lyrics “I want a different / idea of what better can be / which doesn’t necessitate / having more useless shit”, like The Communist Manifesto updated by Mike Leigh for Cameron’s posh-obsessed, Barbour-clad, petrol-hoarding Great Britain.

Maybe it’s my age, but the imploring exhortation that “I won’t play up to it / I won’t play ignorant” gets me. Plumb feels like a very principled album, which makes total sense when you realise the band started existence as part of an arts cooperative that also spawned Maximo Park and The Futureheads, but which doesn’t exist anymore, thanks to funding cuts. (That Guardian piece gives an insight into the band’s ideological ethos and approach to music making, which is also amazingly refreshing.)

I’ve been hammering Plumb since I picked it up; despite the acclaim for John Talabot, Grimes, and Blondes (all of which I really like), and the pleasant distractions of Django Django and Portico Quartet and Beth Jeans Houghton, and the anticipation of forthcoming records by Orbital and Chromatics, I can’t see anything displacing it as my favourite record of the year. Despite its brevity there’s a huge amount to take in, and if anything that brevity makes it seem more dense; fascinating moments are gone almost before you’ve caught hold of them, imploring you to press play again as soon as the record’s finished.

And, as suggested by that statement in the sleevenotes, the whole thing sounds amazing as well, drums and guitars alive and exciting, rhythms and bass warm and compulsive; there are dramatic swoops and moments of intense intimacy, sonic flourishes and subtleties that give a tremendous sense of the creators of this record really caring about what they’re doing. The groove of A New Town, when you open it up on CD away from the broadcast compression of 6music, is like warm water. It’s extraordinary.

So taken am I with Plumb that I’ve picked up the interim Field Music albums that I missed – Tones Of Town and Measure – but I’ve been too besotted with their current offering to really delve into them. Or the old Simple Minds, Smiths, Roxy Music and Destroyer albums I’ve picked up this year. Plumb makes me want to buy another band t-shirt.


Wild Beasts live

We saw that Wild Beasts were touring this spring back in November or so, and snapped up tickets for Exeter Phoenix, which is our local arts centre; so local that it’s walking distance from our house, actually. March felt like an age away at the time we bought tickets, but I started a new job in November and last night came around quickly. I listened to each of their three albums twice yesterday. I’ve listened to Smother and Two Dancers an inordinate amount over the last 12 months. I own as many of their b-sides as I’ve been able to scavenge, too.

I’d describe Wild Beasts as my favourite band at the drop of a hat lately, I think. I don’t really have favourite bands anymore; I didn’t know what any of them looked like before they walked onstage last night. I only know they’re called Hayden, Ben, Tom and Chris because I have their wiki page open. I do know they’re from Kendal via Leeds and London, though. That they’re not originally from a big city seems appropriate, somehow; it makes their sophistication sweeter, more real, better. Don’t ask how or why. Fandom is different in your thirties. When I was 18 I knew the names and faces of everyone in every band I liked, even the anonymous techno duos. Maybe the internet is to blame; I can’t tell you the names of anyone in Field Music or These New Puritans either off the top of my head, but I can look them up wherever I am in seconds, if I need to. Which, to be fair, I seldom do.

(Despite thinking these three bands are the best three bands in Britain at the moment, and owning all their albums, and listening to them a lot, and knowing their music intimately, I barely know what any of their songs are called either. I used to know the names of every good song by every good band, ever. )

Anyway, Wild Beasts, live. Hayden, I think, in person (the one with the Anthony Hegarty range rather than the Peter Gabriel range) looks a little like Crispin Glover, but not snivelling. Tom, I think (the other singer), looks a little like a stylish builder. Who cares what they look like anyway? They sounded awesome; really amazing. The set was made up predominantly of recent material – the bulk of Smother, a good chunk of Two Dancers, and a couple from Limbo Panto, which I don’t know all that well – and the band, five-strong live (augmented by Katie Harkin on all sorts of additional instruments), were tight; so tight that some of the Smother material was actually slowed-down in terms of tempo, quite a feat of self-control live (especially given the extravagant whooping and howling that punctures some of the songs on Two Dancers, and which was thrilling live). The two singers didn’t just trade vocal lines, but also instruments, each playing bass and guitar and keys (and possibly other stuff) too. It’s ridiculous that one band should have two singers who are both so extravagant. I’m glad they do. (The drummer and main guitarist are no slouches either.) End Come Too Soon closed the set in a cloud of swooning, dramatic ambience. How something can be dramatically ambient, or ambiently dramatic, I don’t quite know, but Wild Beasts manage it.

I bought a t-shirt, like a teenager. I own four ‘band’ t-shirts now (Spoon, Wild Beasts, Four Tet, Caribou), probably more than at any other time in my life. Make of that what you will.

Why do people hate John Carter (of Mars)?

Last night I went to see the film John Carter with my friend Olly. Olly has a PhD in English – as I recall he specifically researched the representation of women in Victorian literature. We go and see films together a couple of times a year or more, as we’re both into schlocky superhero and sci-fi movies which our wives don’t always want to come and see with us (though Em is often pretty partial to superheroes and sci-fi; just not anything with swords…).

Which is to say that Olly knows his fantastical action films and is phenomenally well read, too. But he didn’t know that John Carter was an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess Of Mars, written in 1912 and initially published as a 6-part serial in The All-Story magazine, entitled Under The Moon Of Mars; I revealed this to him as I was buying ice cream. I could tell you how, along with HG Wells, it basically invented 20th century science fiction literature (and therefore films; not to mention sub-genres like steampunk), and how people have been trying to turn it into a film for literally a century, and how it essentially wrote the blueprint for Star Wars some 30+ years before George Lucas was born, which is what I told Olly over a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, but you can read all about that at the Wiki page. Olly didn’t know it was Burroughs because John Carter has been marketed pathetically. But more of that later.

I knew nothing about John Carter of Mars as a character until a few years ago when I read Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 2, which starts off on Mars with John Carter and Gullivar Jones (from Edwin Lester Arnold’s 1905 book Lieutenant Gullivar Jones; His Vacation) duking it out against the Martians from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898 – Mars was really popular around the turn of the century). Initially the idea of soldiers being inexplicably catapulted to Mars, discovering it populated by humanoid (and not so humanoid) aliens, and having remarkable adventures (and steamy love affairs) there struck me as faintly ridiculous, but 5 minutes of research into what was thought of Mars at the time (that it was riddled with canal systems, for instance) makes it seem a lot less ridiculous, and, in fact, rather like inventive and fun storytelling.

(I worked with astrophysicists researching extrasolar planets [planets outside our solar system that have atmospheres similar to our own] for the last couple of years; Edgar Rice Burroughs is a far more fun storyteller than they are, generally.)

Anyway, John Carter the film is being panned, and is bombing at the box office. The screen we were in was practically empty. But both Olly and I came out smiling, having thoroughly enjoyed it; we talked about it as we walked back to my house, and neither of us could really understand the criticisms it’s receiving. So why do critics hate it, and why are the public staying away?

First and foremost, the 3D is pointless and stupid; director Andrew Stanton (who did WALL•E and Finding Nemo for Pixar) apparently didn’t want to make it in 3D, but was presumably overruled by someone at Disney. The 3D did not entice me to see it; in fact it put me off; I’d much rather have seen it in 2D, and would probably go and see it again if it played in 2D locally. As a glasses-wearer, having to put the 3D sunglasses over the top of my regular spectacles is awkward and silly. We’ve got a 3D visualisation suite at work for engineers designing things, and I’ve seen that demonstrated, but I’ve very consciously chosen to avoid seeing films in 3D at the cinema. I’m not the only person nonplussed by 3D, either; it’s been in decline since summer 2011 at least.

Secondly, it’s a Disney film, and people hate Disney for all sorts of reasons: the cultural imperialism that saw them steal all sorts of myths and tales from around the world, repackage them with beautiful Americanised heroes and heroines, and then copyright them extremely strictly and get rich off the profits; Walt’s supposed anti-Semitism (unproven and possibly unfounded); the overt, simplistic American morality it peddles; the fact that it’s an enormous, crass, wish-creation-and-fulfillment corporation trading in fairy princesses and talking dogs and so on and so forth.

Thirdly, John Carter is an expensive film – $250 million expensive, plus whatever marketing has gone on top of that, and in 2012 it seems crass for anyone to make such an expensive film when the world is still teetering on the verge of economic catastrophe. Tangled (Disney’s animated take on Rapunzel), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Avatar are the only movies with equally massive budgets to have been released since the recession hit (even the second Transformers film only cost $200 million, and the third one $5 million less than that). Hollywood is seen as being as frivolous and out of touch as city bankers; just look at the success of The Artist, romanticising a golden age (long) before CGI blockbusters. (There are more expensive ventures we should probably be more concerned about, though.)

Most importantly, though, John Carter has been marketed horrifically ineptly. For a start, people are petrified of mentioning that it’s set on Mars, despite the fact that, well, it’s a pretty big part of the film (albeit a part that, like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake, could very easily have been altered, or just ignored, without affecting the atmosphere, tone, story, action, or anything else). Even the trailers were so poor that fans felt the need to re-cut them.

The fact that the source material set a benchmark for science fiction as we know it, that Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Avatar, Firefly / Serenity, Star Trek, Cowboy Bebop, Conan the Barbarian, even stuff like Indiana Jones, not to mention countless other films, games, TV shows, books, anime, superheroes, comics, and so on and so forth (anything with aliens, swords, guns, deserts, and superhuman strength and agility, essentially) and, arguably, a big chunk of the US space program over the last 100 years quite possibly wouldn’t exist, and certainly not as we know it, has been… not even underplayed, but completely ignored. For me, this is the key selling point, but no one at Disney or in the press is talking about it. If it seems formulaic it’s because it IS the formula.

This all adds up to a sense that people (critics?) seem desperate for John Carter to fail, to fulfill a narrative role as much as other doomed follies and flops and ego pieces like Waterworld or Speed Racer or Heaven’s Gate; so desperate that they’re reducing themselves to embarrassingly poor reviews littered with strange bread metaphors and lazy accusations of the film being “boring” and “incomprehensible”, whilst smugly bleeping out the word ‘Mars’ from audio clips and complaining, childishly, that the film’s nomenclature is nonsensical (as if no film, or cultural product of any kind, with idiotic internal nomenclature like Ewok and Endor and Yoda or Hobbit and Ent and Gollum or Na’vi and Pandora and Unobtanium, could ever be successful or even accepted).

(I like both Bradshaw and Kermode, as a rule, though I often don’t agree with them; it’s called ‘taste’.)

Certainly, John Carter is not the type of film that lends itself to the kind of aesthetic contemplation that can elicit positive critical responses, but cinema isn’t always about that; sometimes it’s about a fantastical, visually ravishing, swashbuckling, romantic, bizarre adventure that transports you for a couple of hours, which is what I experienced last night. To consider two recent(ish) sci-fi films I’ve adored: District Nine and Children of Men are all about plausible solutions to “what if?” scenarios, which is fine and worthy and entertaining and arguably can produce films more suited to “aesthetic contemplation”; but John Carter is about implausiblity and “wtf?!” scenarios, which can and often does produce spectacularly entertaining films. So what if the Martian MacGuffins were left unexplained (some kind of astral projection, immortal observers secretly guiding events, machines that fly on light, and so on and so forth); that’s the point of MacGuffins, and there’s plenty else going on to demonstrate intelligence from both Stanton, Borroughs, and Michael Chabon.

Take Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars herself, for instance; not just a damsel in distress, she’s the heir to a seemingly matriarchal society (they pointedly worship a goddess and not a god, and there are as many women in the armies as men), more than capable in a fight, an accomplished research scientist, and as pursuant of John Carter’s affections as he is of hers. She makes wry reference to the relative appropriateness of her (enforced) attire, commands soldiers, and comes up with the cunning plans that Carter himself is a little too dull to think of; there’s a lot more to her than the trailer might lead you to believe.

The long and short is that I don’t think John Carter is a failure, at least not creatively; certainly it could be better – it could lose 20 minutes, although I didn’t look at my watch once despite having gone to the cinema straight after a post-work game of 5-a-side (and I’d apply that criticism to many, many films anyway), and much of the dialogue is of the “you can write this shit but you can’t say it” variety (again, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Avatar seemed unharmed by this), and it perhaps tries to jam in too many sides, too much exposition, too much Martian jargon – but this seems like quibbling when advance press was making me feel guilty and foolish for wanting to see it, and half had me expecting some kind of horrific natural disaster of a film. It’s unabashedly pulp, but it understands, in fact it revels in its pulpiness; with 4-armed green Martians, phantasmagorical flying machines, a bizarrely cute-weird pet “dog” thing, extravagantly exposed thighs (from both sexes), lavish fight scenes, trashy political weddings, sumptuous scenery and sets, there is a wealth of pleasurable oddness to sweep you along.

Don’t be ashamed to be from Mars.

Music Diary 2012

Traffic lights

So last year loads of people took part in The Music Diary Project, and it was really interesting finding out the what, how, where, who, and why (sort of) of the music we listen to on an average week.

Nearly 12 months on, and several people have asked me if I’m planning on doing it again. And, well, the simple answer is that it doesn’t matter if I do it again, it matters, and becomes interesting, if you lot do it again, but I’m game if you are. So let’s go for the beginning of May, specifically the seven days from Monday 30th April until Sunday 6th May. During that week, listen to music as normal, but every time you listen to something, through specific personal choice, on the radio, as played by a club DJ or performed by a band at a gig, on shuffle via your phone, make a note of what it is, and, at some stage, somewhere, post it online – you can Tweet it, Tumblr it, Facebook it, LiveJournal it, write it in a notebook, photograph it, and stick it on Flickr, whatever you like – so that we can all see and share. Use the hashtag #musicdiary2012, and that way we can all keep tabs and see how other people are doing.

You can still download the listening log from last time, if you like, as a prompt.

At the end of the week, I’ll run a survey again, and then write-up some thoughts once it’s over.

Who’s up for it?