Sunday, 13 July 2014

SONG OF THE WEEK #155: Mike Scott - "Fisherman's Blues"

It doesn't get any better than this, does it. Mike Scott doing "Fisherman's Blues" live, with Steve Wickham ripping through his brilliant fiddle tune. Those lyrics are poetry. And always funny how they trade looks after the third verse - as if deciding whether Steve will do that mad solo part or not. But of course he will. 

Friday, 11 July 2014

Favourite albums: HOW I LOVED YOU (2001) by Angels Of Light

That girl on the cover. Alice Schulte Gira. The kind of beauty that can give you nightmares. Those cheeks, that look. I can almost imagine Hitchcock walking into the room shouting ‘Cut!’ The smile that can drive you insane. Perfect image for this horror film of an acoustic folk album.

Michael Gira’s initial idea was that he would call this band The Pleasure Seekers. However, providence was against such gruesome irony (since there already was a band with that name), so he went for Angels Of Light. It is still ironic, of course, but not any more than Swans. Or the opening chords of “Untitled Love Song”. Or the soft-silky voice of The Cowboy from Mulholland Drive. There is definitely pleasure here, and there is definitely light. But there is always menace. It's inherent.

The first two songs, “Evangeline” and “Untitled Love Song” (surely one of this world’s greatest love songs), are languidly strummed acoustic beauties. Basically, this is Gira’s take on country music. Then it gets unnerving, and the sinister guitar underpinning “My True Body” is as calm as it is intense. The lyrics are ghastly, Gira’s voice is pure anxiety mixed with depression. There is no hope. “Jennifer’s Sorry” is lighter. It sounds like a pretty lullaby for suicidal babies. The grimly elegiac “Song For Nico” brings me to tears, and that was just the first five songs.

Slow, gorgeous, ominous grooves. And almost accessible – that is, if you can get past the bleak, monotonous vibe. Who knows, you might even find this stuff relaxing. The only song here I would call ‘difficult’ is “New City In The Future”. It’s like a nasty dream, like a bad memory slowly crawling under your skin, and the feeling becomes unbearable. Screams at the end will test every faint heart exposed to this album. “My Suicide” is more of that unsettling imagery, and “New York Girls” is like an army of ghosts drifting through desert sands. “Public Embarrassment Blues” is lyrically vicious, culminating in the deadly ‘leave me alone’ line. “Two Women” is a twelve minute epic with an elegant, faux-sunny atmosphere that almost offers… hope. But can you really say that?..

How I Loved You is as long (70 minutes) and oddly seductive and black and white as its cover art suggests. And monumental – like any of Gira’s works. It’s an album to experience, to live with or maybe to survive. As far as musical experiences go, this tops any lists. I once listened to this album lying on a floor in an unknown city, in a state of total emotional collapse. I don’t think it gets any more special than that. But then again, I don’t think you will do it justice by just pressing play. 

It’s a devastating album. But that’s the sweetest devastation imaginable.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Book review: DONNA TARTT - The Goldfinch (2013)


The Goldfinch is one of those books where you feel older at the end. You are wiser, but there’s a price. Your hair’s gone gray and your voice is husky and feeble. You smoke now. Maybe you’ve quit smoking. And you remember that all those years ago, back in 2013 or something, Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. Long, long time ago.

Donna Tartt gives ten-year gaps between novels a good name. Her latest book is so immense (close to 800 pages) and monumental (Nietzsche’s immortal ‘We have art in order not to die from the truth’ line almost doesn’t sound excessive) that you’d have to wonder if The Goldfinch is not, in fact, one of those.

Great American novels. Because it has everything to be one.

Interestingly, it is almost old-fashioned. Despite iPhones and numerous indie culture references. Despite the fact that we have a Bildungsroman that has angles ranging from romantic to detective to gangster (the latter is especially evident in the Amsterdam section of the novel that made me think of Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges). But you finish a chapter and the next one follows the story ever so faithfully. Character descriptions are so complete (though my favourite one is just a brief line of pure poetry: ‘He was a planet without an atmosphere’). And watch Tartt give you that ancient but highly effective drama at the end of some of these encounters. This could be the last time I saw him. I knew I would never see her again. It's 19th century at best, and yet it works so beautifully.

Classic, simple narrative. Reading Tartt’s prose is like falling in life with the English language again and again. It’s rich, it’s precise, it’s very lush. Her dialogues are living things. And even when she is being pretentious, it never comes off that way. She is sharp and to the point. ‘Beauty’, she writes in a long but fascinating philosophical passage towards the end of the book, ‘has to be wedded to something meaningful’. Donna Tartt stays true to her word.

Theodore Decker is a New York boy who visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother to look at one of her favourite paintings (“The Goldfinch” by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius). There is a huge explosion and the boy somehow retrieves the picture out of the ashes and the dead bodies. Theo’s mother dies, and he is almost like a modern-day Oliver Twist. His enthralling adventure starts. He gets to know his runaway father. He falls in love, tragically and eternally. He meets his best friend, an exciting Ukrainian boy named Boris (yet again I tip my hat to Donna Tartt: most of the Russian language bits are very credible). Completely by chance, he encounters a mentor, a father figure. The generous and na├»ve Hobie is a charming Dickensian character, and it’s great to see how different worlds collapse into each other at various points of the novel. It’s that kind of book: by the end of it, you feel that everything has happened. And all the way through, Theo has kept the picture. Faithfully, frightened of being found out, only occasionally unwrapping the heavy package to peek at what Boris so wittily described as his dear friend’s ‘zolotaya ptitsa’ (literally: golden bird).

Indeed, it’s like Donna Tartt set out to write the impossible. The ultimate novel about art. I would not say that it is (how can you?), but it is one hell of an artistic statement. It is an art statement. She tries to see that pattern (‘maybe I see a pattern because it’s there?’), something that would go from William Blake and to Lady Gaga. She got as close as you can, without burning yourself or compromising the fact that you’re but an artist. She even named her book The Goldfinch. How humble is that. How bold. 

And it is not just that you’ve grown older. You are at the point of no return, you are basically dead already. ‘Life is catastrophe’, with art as its sole saving grace. “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritius, painted in 1654. ‘I was different’, says Theo when he looks at the picture years later, ‘but it wasn’t’. 

Sunday, 6 July 2014

SONG OF THE WEEK #154: The Delines - "I Won't Slip Up"

Colfax is shaping up to be one of the most stylish and beautiful albums of 2014. Perfect night in big stereo headphones, cigarette smoke slowly fizzing out of your apartment window, "I Won't Slip Up" brings a difficult day to a comforting end. 

Friday, 4 July 2014


Directed by Wes Anderson


You see there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed, that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant… ah fuck it.

You don’t really laugh at Wes Anderson’s films, do you? You smile (constantly) and you chuckle (occasionally), but you don’t laugh. The man is too quirky to make you laugh – even if he did come close this time. Not since Alec Baldwin’s classic scene in Glengarry Glen Ross have I heard ‘fucking faggot’ said with such gusto and style. Adrien Brody had me there. In fact, this film features some of the most hilarious swearing I’ve heard in a while. Because no one can do it quite like a guy who gave us Moonrise Kingdom and Fantastic Mr. Fox

Obviously enough, The Grand Budapest Hotel looks exactly like a Wes Anderson film. That disarming, cutesy-witty style of his, preserved in its ideal state down to every last word and wrinkle. And every time you think: but it shouldn’t work, those mannerisms, that suffocating dollhouse perfection. And every time his masterful execution just wins you over. You accept his rules, you have no choice.

The cast is breathtaking. Usual suspects (including, yes, Bill Murray) mixed with new blood (Jude Law, Ralph Fiennes, Mathieu Amalric, others). But while the acting is always impeccable (Fiennes in particular is a portrait of solemn hilarity), you always get the feeling that these are no more than talented puppets, beautiful animated dolls in a Wes Anderson show. And I mean that in the best possible sense.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is like a weirded-out adventure story for children. The usual, then. From shot one, Anderson places you into his world, and this time it is a fictional country called Zubrowka. Eastern Europe, by the looks of it. Gustave H (funny, kind, generous, odd), a concierge of one truly striking and singular hotel, is framed for murder and is on the run. Lots of cute characters and whimsical sequences along the way, nothing you would for a moment mistake for reality. Most of the story takes place in the 1930’s, and you will be aware that some bad stuff is going on outside, but the Nazis are a Mickey Mouse organization and even the prison view is basically a postcard from Amsterdam.

Allegorical statements don’t really fit into a Wes Anderson world, so instead enjoy it as a unique spectacle. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a genuine tale of kindness for insecure adults with a strong sense of self-irony and taste. 

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Film review: WE ARE THE BEST!

Directed by Lukas Moodysson  


Sweden is as good a country as any other, but you don’t really expect to see a Swedish film about punk rock. I don’t mean ABBA and I don’t mean Scandinavian metal scene. It’s not that. It is just that unless you are Swedish or a punk rock nerd (beats the purpose), you won’t know Johnny Rotten had any bearing on that part of the world. But of course he did.

The film is set in Stockholm. Bleak and cheerless, depressing snow bogs you down. School sucks, family issues, hair metal on the rise. This is the perfect background for something nasty and exciting to emerge. Enter punk rock. Enter three friends (pre-teen girls) who find themselves at odds with the existing conventions: Christianity, bad music, boredom. Punk may be dead, but they know it isn’t. They know it is alive and well and the sole purpose of their lives. The reason they play it whenever they have a chance, the reason they hate school, the reason their hair has to be so short, the reason they get drunk and fight and fall in love for the first time.

But above all – they start their own band. Obviously, they have no idea how to tune their instruments, they can barely hold them. One girl plays acoustic guitar, and that’s about it. Small triumphs and tragedies along the way, and then we reach the big final scene that in reality is not any bigger than the last chord on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album. And it doesn't have to be.

Now of course We Are The Best! is not a film about punk rock, even if you get to hear lots of good Swedish music from the period. It is basically a coming of age story and a complete, pointless triumph of idealism. Because idealism is always pointless. But who cares – when you have the music and you have the guts. This film is touching and funny. And maybe a little sad. Because idealism passes. Or does it.