Monthly Archives: January 2010

No Booze February

Transference seems to have been causing more than a few Spoon fans some trouble; Derek Miller can’t deal with it. I can almost understand why; it’s a pretty indefatigable way to harsh the considerable buzz that was Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, the giant alien ripping the shit out of New York after the awesome trendy loft party full of beautiful people dancing to “The Underdog”. It’s a slow hangover of a record. The production choices, this time made purely by Spoon, for Spoon, as opposed to made by Mike McCarthy, for Spoon, are sometimes pretty strange; a lot of it sounds like a demo. Because much of it is. Mind you, chunks of Girls Can Tell sounds like that. Girls Can Tell gets a free pass by having plenty of hooks and choons though. The kick drum that starts up the wheezing organs and drones of “Before Destruction” takes about six hits to find its bottom-end, and then loses it all again as soon as Britt, in another room, standing away from the mic, enters the fray. Then it comes back into focus. Or not focus; it was in focus anyway, just on the edge of the frame, and now it zooms in. Except it’s not a zoom; Spoon work in prime lenses – you have to physically walk closer to see things larger, and retreat to get the wide-angle view. This is OK. There’s something in those whirring organs, in the humming, mumbling voices underneath them, that makes me yearn, makes my chest tighten up a little and makes me shift my eyes into the middle distance.

The odd little production flourishes continue; Britt’s voice moves around. Jim’s drums sound like… actually I don’t know. Guitars are little rough raw apparatuses that scratch the paintwork on your car, that echo oddly. Some songs change an awful lot, a succession of avenues and alleys and corridors, and some barely change at all; “The Mystery Zone”. “Who Makes Your Money” is, I think it was Matos who said, like a piece of minimal techno, or something. Certainly not like a “rock” song. Mathers said “didn’t they used to have choruses that were more than just the title repeated three times?” and, yes, they did, but they also never did. “Written In Reverse” has some angry shouting, almost a holler or a scream or a squeal. “Goodnight Laura” is just piano and voice, not spooky like when they did that on the last record, but really… genuinely intimate, and caring. The kind of song that makes me assume the author is a father, and that the eponymous object is his daughter. Don’t think Britt is though.

Just seen a tweet that Spoon are (not ‘is’, never ‘is’) playing a gig in a parking lot this afternoon (it’s evening where I am, but you get me). ‘Cats allowed only on leashes”. We put a leash on Bob once; he didn’t like it. I don’t think Spoon liked the leash they nearly put on themselves with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. I don’t go to parties much these days, but I used to. Every party has a hangover. I fucking hate them these days, but… sometimes you have a great hangover. One you don’t mind, one that swirls, and confuses, and bends time, one with nothing to do today or even tomorrow and probably not on Monday either. That’s what Transference seems like to me, right now.

Here Is Love For This Record

Good grief I love this new Four Tet record. I might have mentioned that. I certainly should have. It’s beautiful. I love it.

I didn’t care all that much for Everything Ecstatic, and I kind of lost track of what he was up to afterwards, with the Steve Reid collaborations, the residencies, the remixes, etc, etc… I checked things out but really, rockist that I am, I just wanted new music by Four Tet.

Bought a Fridge album once. Didn’t like it. Still own it. Listened to another one on a listening post (remember them?) way back when. Didn’t like that either.

I loved the Ringer EP too when that came out in 2008; it was one of the few high points of the year. It gave me a thrill like Orbital had when I was 17, only for Ringer I was 29. It’s not easy making a guy with a mortgage and a pension and a selection of cookbooks feel like a teenager again; it’s to be applauded.

“This Unfolds” is a description rather than a title; it’s astonishing. I got in trouble, of a sort, on ILM, for describing the album as being heavy on the 4/4 beats, when I should have said “four on the floor”, or something. Whatever; it’s more electronic, more digital, than anything Hebden’s done under this nom-de-plume before (bar Ringer), but just as beatific; if not more so. It’s got that end-of-the-night house feel that I mentioned in the piece about Delphic down below, all the beauty and emotion I was looking for in that. Has it got the grooves? Between this and “Who Makes Your Money?” from the Spoon album, grooves are in no short supply.

“Circling” is, again, like he took a descriptor liable to be used by someone like me and made a track around it that leaves us plebs with no words to use. “Circling” circles. “This Unfolds” unfolds. He ought to call his next album Fucking Amazing Beautiful Music. It’s onomatopoeic. It makes me want to cry but not with anything even remotely approaching sadness.

It’s all Greek to me

As you may know, I was hotly anticipating the Delphic record, having been impressed with “Counterpoint”. Well, I picked up Acolyte on the day it was released (going into a “record shop” to “buy” a “compact disc” in some kind of renaissance fair re-enactment of what it used to be like to be a music fan) and thoroughly enjoyed it when I got home and cranked it through the B&Ws in the livingroom. And also through the AKGs when at the computer, and through the Portapros when walking to work. But despite its success in three different contexts, it’s left me… a little cold, perhaps?

What I was really after, I think, was that kind of end-of-the-night house music that’s sent simultaneously melancholic/transcendental shivers of bliss down my spine for about 14 years, and Delphic, while displaying some of the anonymity of mid-90s techno super-duos which seems to be intricately linked with that sensation in their faceless, accountant-esque sartorial direction, didn’t quite hit it. There are tunes, certainly, and plenty of them earwormed their way into my head over the course of only a couple of exposures which is always a sign of good pop that avoids “sunk costs”, and there are also thrillingly propulsive and sense-swirling passages of music that are, and have no doubt about this, fully dance / electronic in nature, and not some kind of tokenistic indieboy head-nod towards in the name of eclectic hipsterism. The title track, for instance, is really not the work of an “indie” band; there is piss-all here in common with Arcade Fire or The Strokes, even if there may be, very very slightly, with Animal Collective. That “indie” or “rock” and “dance” have a difficult history of failed fusion attempts is just a lie at this point anyway, an easy crowbar for lazy, received-wisdom-touting journalists/hipsters/idiots to wave as a signifier of authority in an argument based on a false dichotomy.

But even so, beyond genre discussions, something about Delphic doesn’t _quite_ click with me. Maybe it is the vaguely vacant vocal delivery, the lack of demonstrable personality in aid of subservience to “the dance”? Karl Hyde managed to keep some personality though, didn’t he? Or were his abstrusely delivered comments more about adding further distance between regular human behaviour and the great mechanistic propulsion? If you can’t understand the words they may as well be delivered by a robot?

No. Delphic are lacking two things; beauty and groove. Beauty both musically, sensationally, and also emotionally; while there are a number of head-spinning moments none of them are quite as simultaneously blissful and thrilling as, say, that weird pulse that tremors through “Mmmm Skyscraper I Love You”, or the heartbeat beat that opens “The Girl With The Sun In Her Head”, or, to get more recent, the cold, dappled, concentric guitar loops and synth stabs that patina “When I Grow Up”. Emotionally, too, there’s nothing as rousing as “Voodoo People” or as humbling as “Halcyon+On+On”, as elating as the yelps that puncture “My Girls”, as decompressing as “Someone Great”, as wistful as “All My Friends”. That those last two come back-to-back on the same album is a humbling point here, I think; anyone who says dance music is cold and unemotional is a liar; anyone who says dance and rock can’t live together is a liar. Delphic affirm the latter but not, so much, the former.

As for the groove thing; Delphic are definitely propulsive, and defiantly dancefloor-focused, but they’re also stuck at a frustrating midpoint between libertarian elasticity and fascistic mechanism when it comes to their actual rhythms. Neither as spastically irresistible as “House of Jealous Lovers” or as autistically undeniable as “La Rock 01”; there’s no sense that these momentums would, or could, last forever. Delphic simply drive forward until they get to a destination, and then they stop; a great groove either winds, and sashays, and takes in different areas of topography, flexing and moving organically, or else it knows no obstacle, and never ends.

I don’t means to come across as if I’m dismissing Delphic here; it’s early days still, very much so, and, as I said, some of the tunes are undeniable and I still have an urge to revisit Acolyte which may well reveal that my criticisms, if they are criticisms, are incorrect. Now that I’m not a critic anymore, I’m more than accepting of my right to be wrong. It’s just that the urge to listen to Acolyte again isn’t a compulsion, and I had hoped it might be.

Three things that I do feel a compulsion to listen to again, though, are the new Four Tet album, the new Spoon album, and last year’s Fever Ray album, which, when added together, provide me with a substantial, sustained hit of what I was looking for with the Delphic album. More about each later, perhaps.

The Stylus Decade RIP

Seems a little crass to use RIP in the header for this post the day after Teddy Pendergrass and Jay Reatard died, and two days after the earthquake in Haiti felled tens of thousands of lives, but… The Stylus Decade is finished with now, bar a little copy-editing to tidy up the loose bits that got missed or lost or confused in the hectic, pan-Atlantic flurry of emails that was our effort to get everything published on time. Not that we had any deadline except the one we imposed on ourselves; though sometimes those are the most important ones.

Simon Reynolds, who graciously both contributed a ballot and bigged us up in The Guardian but who wasn’t able to do us any blurbs, has bemoaned the predictability of the top 20 albums when compared with the P2K list. And I have to say I agree; there is a large amount of crossover with the P2K list, which was always a potential issue given the amount of Stylus alumni who now write for P4K. It’s also, sadly, the major side-effect of any consensus; compiling lists simply does bring out the commonly-liked things as opposed to the uncommonly-loved. Which is something that I complained about regarding other lists, and was trying to avoid with the Stylus list; it was kind of the reason for doing it.

But, knowing everyone who was involved, having seen all the ballots and watched the tallies add up, having organised the endeavour… I feel very accepting of the final content and order of the list. It is what it is, and if there’s consensus between P4K and Stylus it’s not only because of the staff crossover but because those are all good records that people like a lot, even if they may not all excite me that greatly. The 2000/2001/2002 bias, I think, is purely down to the time those records have had to bed into the collective conscience; couple this with the changing modes of production and consumption that are splitting the music world into a thousand splinters, and which writers and record companies and consumers alike have yet to get to grips with, and the early-decade bias is predictable.

These minor concerns aside, though, the exercise of putting The Stylus Decade together was worth it for the writing in the lists, the essays, the artwork, and the camaraderie. And, y’know, just because those of us who make lists like this may find the results predictable doesn’t mean that the people who read it won’t find lots of hidden and unexplored gems in its confines.

Original Pirate Material is an odd omission though, and I also consider it vastly superior to A Grand Don’t Come For Free. Simon’s probably right that Mike Skinner has done an amazing job of erasing himself from the critical mind; such was the fall-off I experienced with Grand (all impact lost after the first trip through the narrative, essentially, which is due to the poor nature of individual songs; maybe the rumours about him nicking all the backing tracks on his debut have some foundation – they’re certainly better than his later material) that I never heard a subsequent album all the way through.

I was also surprised that Fugazi’s The Argument didn’t make the list; it didn’t seem like a final statement for the band at the time, so perhaps the way the group simply seemed to cease to be over the course of the decade made people forget just how fine it was.

Probably my only regret about the whole venture is that this didn’t get into the top 100; it placed at about 140/150ish if memory serves. I thought about doing some gerrymandering to squeeze it in, but it was too big a leap to be conscionable. Oh well; it remains one of my very favourite, and most played, records of the last decade.

The Top 23 Films of the Noughties

So, seeing as I used to run the film department at a university library, and as I did manage to write about film a couple of times for Stylus, I thought I ought to write something about my favourite films of the last 10 years. Here goes.

23’s not some mysteriously significant number; I just jotted a list of my favourite 00s films while starring down my DVD collection, and when I counted them there were 23. It would seem churlish and arbitrary to trim 3 off, and I can’t think of 3 I’d want to remove anyway, so I’ll write about them all.

No 2 films by the same director, no 2 films from the same franchise. Arbitrary, I know, but this is my blog so I make up the rules. If you think there’s something missing, I either didn’t see it (yet) or didn’t like it (lots). For instance, I have a DVD of Moon that I’m gagging to watch and expecting to love, but it only plays with the commentary track overdubbed on my DVD player, and as such I’m shunning it (3rd copy I’ve had that does this). And there are oodles of films I’ve seen once and liked, but not had chance to see a second time and fall in love with yet (Blindness, There Will Be Blood, Ping Pong, The New World). Oh well.

Children of Men
Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006
These films are presented in no particular order beyond that in which they were thought of, much of which is dictated by the (colour-coded) ordering of the DVDs on my shelves. This, however, is the film I pretty regularly cite as my de facto “film of the decade”; it’s also almost certainly the film I’ve seen most over the last ten years, if you discount Jaws, which I was briefly obsessed with when I first got a DVD player, and which I still hold as one of cinema’s greatest achievements.

Anyway, Children of Men; I first saw it in the cinema with Em, on the recommendation of a friend and with no other contextual foreknowledge of what it was about or even who was in it or who directed it. As such it was the blindest first viewing of a film I’ve ever made, and this blindness probably helped it blow me away. It wasn’t the most profound cinema-going experience I’ve had (more on some of those later), but it was awesome, and cemented Cuarón in my mind as one of the foremost directors of our time. On first thought, this has nothing in common with the excellent Y Tu Mama, which brought Cuarón to my attention. Further rumination reveals that they’re both procreation-obsessed road-movies, but still, tone, plot, and everything else about the films are poles apart in all but quality. That he made a (very good) Harry Potter movie in between just accentuates his skill.

But anyway; the animals, the cars, the anchormen, the dirt, the sound-design, the (pseudo) one-take action sequences, Clive Owen – I love pretty much everything about this film. To me it’s a triumph of cinema, of filmmaking, and something I’ll keep watching for years to come. It’s also a film that, though I’ve not seen Avatar, creates a world that I find more compelling, more real, more convincing, than the one that James Cameron needs big blue 3D breasts to make enticing, even if those big blue 3D breasts are “game changing”. Like the next film, and District 9 further down the list, the world created by Cuarón here is just close enough to our own, just dirty enough, just flawed enough, just real enough, to be thoroughly seductive, even if it’s not rendered in something we need a whole new technology in order to be able to see.

The Dark Knight
Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008
I already wrote a lot about this film back when it came out, so I shan’t say much here, besides that Em and I have a standing joke about never having seen this and “shall we finally put the DVD on?” that would mean nothing to anyone else. Someone, possibly Mark Kermode, said something recently in a radio-based film review of the decade about CGI just not being as exciting as real stuntmen in real vehicles, and I think a big part of the enjoyment of this film was that things like the truck-flip sequence were REAL. Actually maybe it was about the Sony Bravia advert with the bouncy balls, which is also real; finding out that they really did bounce 250,000 balls down a San Francisco hill fills me with joy.

Also, as alluded to above and described in detail in the linked Rocktimists piece, the cinema-going experience for The Dark Knight was extraordinary.

Waking Life
Dir. Richard Linklater, 2001
I think something on ILE made me check out this visual feast; that the philosophical content of the film’s many dialogues didn’t put me off, and in fact lured me in further, just made it better, and I went through a phase early in the decade of watching this (and Koyaanisqatsi) every couple of weeks, purely for the joy of the spectacle. I wish A Scanner Darkly had used the rotoscope as creatively as this did.

The Bourne Identity
Dir. Doug Liman, 2002
Really I mean the whole Bourne franchise here, as I find it hard to pick (or even tell) between them; while convalescing from my hernia op in February I watched them back-to-back as one unfolding narrative. I’m not, despite the occasional dalliance, a highbrow film-viewer; as Roger Ebert reminds us, A man goes to the movies. A critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man; most of my favourite films are just films, spectacles, exciting things. The Bourne films are as exciting as hell, and, as talked about above, rendered all the more exciting for being about real stunts rather than CGI thrills.

Pan’s Labyrinth
Dir. Guillermo Del Toro, 2006
The unthinking cinemagoer’s thinking film choice, to be nasty. A nasty film, to be cynical. A horror film, to be precise; Del Toro’s a genre director first and foremost, and like the best genre directors his best films step just beyond genre enough to impress purely as film, if that makes sense. But they’re still, at heart, horror films, and so the son’s head needs to be mashed-in with a bottle, the commander’s face needs to be self-stitched, the little girl needs to… well. The horror comes from the sins visited by the real upon the real as much as it comes from the extraordinary, creepy monsters; we know this, it’s simple, it’s obvious. It’s still wonderful, though.

Io Non Ho Paura
Dir. Gabriele Salvatores, 2003
A beautiful film, not dissimilar to Pan’s Labyrinth in many ways, but simpler, less fantastical, and also more emotionally and morally complex. I shan’t spoil the plot, but I shall praise the extraordinary cinematography; southern Italy is rendered here as a land of glorious, sun-dried primary colours, yellow corn, blue sky, and a boy’s red t-shirt. Watch this, please.

Team America; World Police
Dir. Trey Parker, 2004
An outrage in many ways; The Guardian also singled this out for decade-end praise. Little made me laugh more unpleasantly than this, much as little made me laugh more unpleasantly than the South Park movie in the previous decade. I’m an unpleasant man, and I like to laugh. Cynicism directed EVERYWHERE is the best weapon.

The Fellowship of the Ring
Dir. Peter Jackson, 2001
The first film is my favourite because what it lacks in awe-striking set-piece battles and spectacle, it makes up for in a pure-hearted sense of adventure. It made me want to start roleplaying and wargaming again, albeit very briefly. I still, occasionally, try and watch them all together.

Dir. Andrew Stanton, 2008
Lens-flare in an animation. If you’re going to create a world in a computer, create a world this convincing, even while still acknowledging its status as a cartoon, and one suitable for children, too, not some adult-aimed, breast-baring Manga titillation.

Dir. Rian Johnson, 2005
Not something I’d claim as great, but a film I thoroughly enjoyed; the clinching moment came with a line, a moment, and a gesture, when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character was speaking with the principal. At that moment I suddenly bought into the melodrama, into the heightened noir-world that was being displayed, and Brick shifted from sassy, show-off school play into knowing, but caring (for its sources), entertainment.

The Incredibles
Dir. Brad Bird, 2004
The world here may not be rendered as realistically as those first 40 minutes of Wall-E, but the characters are fantastic. It’s essentially the same plot as Watchmen – hell, it even features a giant alien denouement – but by throwing out the actual comicbook and embracing the platonic essence of comicbooks in general it manages to become the second-best comicbook / superhero film of a decade littered with good-to-great examples.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Dir. Shane Black, 2005
In 1986 the cast of Predator featured a gang of ex-athletes, body-builders, and scriptwriting-wannabes who would go on to become state governors and some of the most influential and successful figures in Hollywood. It’s quite astonishing. Shane Black is the irritating skinny bespectacled geek who keeps telling pussy jokes. Then he wrote Lethal Weapon and a handful of other action blockbusters. Years later this was his directorial debut; a noir-ish buddy movie that resurrected Robert Downey, Jr.’s career even though Val Kilmer got all the best lines (including the one about the dictionary definition of the word idiot). This, like Die Hard, is the best kind of Christmas movie; an incidental one. And it makes me laugh like a drain.

Dir. Shane Carruth, 2004
A dirt-cheap sci-fi time-traveller that I wrote about at length back in the day. I talk about it more than I rewatch it, if only because rewatching still gives me brain-ache.

Spirited Away
Dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2001
I’m running out of writing steam here, but I don’t want this list to hang over me and over me and never get finished. So let’s be fast; this film is all those spooky-yet-beautiful dreams of childhood written in Miyazaki’s own extraordinary visual language. It’s a literal wonder to behold.

Napoleon Dynamite
Dir. Jared Hess, 2004
Utterly stupid, almost completely plotless, this baffled me on first viewing, but slowly revealed itself as the kind of character-comedy that rewards repeated viewings.

Dir. Greg Mottola, 2007
Adolescent dick-jokes and camaraderie; Judd Apatow’s crew took the romantic-comedy genre, gave it gender-realignment surgery, and owned it for the latter half of the decade.

Little Miss Sunshine
Dir. Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris, 2006
Some may call it hokey or indie or whatever; to me this is an awesome ensemble character comedy. The final fifteen minutes induce both (social-etiquette) terror and deep, rolling laughter – it made me cry with emotion and laughter simultaneously.

28 Days Later
Dir. Danny Boyle, 2002
I’m an absolute sucker for zombies and viruses and shots of cities bereft of people. The metaphorical moral message is rammed home a little too hard in the final third, but this is Danny Boyle, and his films can never, ever be wholly successful; witness the totally unbelievable love-story that one can make no investment in whatsoever but which is supposed to drive the entire emotional heart of Slumdog Millionaire.

The Lives of Others
Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006
I watched a lot of miserable European films this decade; my other half loves them, whether they’re about stealing babies or self-administered abortions or concentration camps or whatever. I’d rather watch Cloverfield (which narrowly misses this list). This tale of the heartless observer slowly coming alive and then dying, however, has just a little more to it than pure realist misery.

Dir. David Fincher, 2007
Just incredibly well put together, Fincher finally showing that he can make a great film, rather than a film with a great USP.

Dir. Zack Snyder, 2009
This is flawed in many ways (both too long and not long enough, too faithful and not faithful enough), but it’s still an awesome achievement and I thoroughly enjoyed it, casual fan of the source material that I am.

District 9
Dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2009
I’m still waiting for this to arrive on DVD, and hence have only seen it the once (in the cinema) so feel a little guilty for including it in case it slips in my esteem; I doubt it will, though. See all I wrote above about Children of Men, The Dark Knight, even Pan’s Labyrinth; this is sci-fi based in a world that’s recognisable, real, palpable and possible. (Em and I are currently motoring through Battlestar Galactica.)

Brotherhood of the Wolf
Dir. Christophe Gans, 2001
What can I say? I’ve had a thing for The Hound of the Baskervilles since I was about 8. This has martial arts and heaving bosoms and religious covens and adventure and heaving bosoms and wolves and beasts and dastardly plots and heaving bosoms and did I mention Monica Bellucci? Never mind her, what about Émilie Dequenne? Never mind her, what about the post-Matrix action sequences? Astoundingly silly cinema. I like bread and circus games, really.

The Stylus Decade

The Naughties Wall

And so, after several months of emails, spreadsheets, cajoling, begging, and bullying, The Stylus Decade is starting to go live. At the moment it’s just an intro written by yours truly, but tomorrow lists and essays will start appearing with a vengeance. Hopefully people will enjoy reading them as much as we’ve fretted over putting them together.

The project as a whole is a love song, really, to Stylus, which may not have been the biggest or most influential music site, but was… the most human, I think. Since it ceased publication in October 2007 I’ve barely written for anywhere else, I suspect because rather than wanting to write about music, I wanted to write for Stylus, if that makes sense.

Several people have asked me, by the wonders of “social media”, whether there will be any content regarding what the Stylus alumni are now up to; had we had time, I’d have loved to put something like this together, and who knows, maybe once this little project is out of the way, perhaps I will. It’s interesting to note how many writers started out at Stylus and have moved on to Pitchfork, or The Guardian, or The Village Voice, since Stylus disbanded, and even while it was still going. Hell, even I got a few things published at The Guardian back in the day.

I’ve bought the new URL for a period of two years, and while there are no concrete plans for doing anything else after this 00s round-up is completed in a week or so’s time, I have got a mad idea about the 60s.

Coming soon; something about films from the naughties.