Friday, February 22, 2008

The Brits: never again

The Brits. Honestly, why do I still watch this, when I could be doing something more spiritually nourishing, like punching myself in the face? It must be some notion that I still have, somewhere deep inside, that pop can still thrill, move, delight and transport. On the evidence of this parade of mediocrities, I must be wrong.

It’s been easy the last five years, since Australia doesn’t show the Brits. They have the ARIAs which, despite being on a much smaller scale and having a worrying tendency to give multiple awards to Missy Higgins, at least has no global aspirations. Every second of this year’s ceremony scream the organizers desperation to be cool and edgy. And then they tell us that the award for Best British Live Band has been voted for by listeners to Radio 2. Fine and rounded citizens though I’m sure they are, Radio 2 listeners perhaps aren’t representative of those gig-goers who’ll happily be doused in the guitarist’s coke-adulterated sweat just to catch a possibly seminal event, or at least a rousing one. Sure enough, Take That get the award. Fine. They’re not the problem.

Sharon Osbourne. Britain, why?

The Brits School. Half the winners gave shout-outs to the kids in the front rows, which were deservingly stuffed with current students. What is the Brits School? Is this the future of British music we have to look forward to? Seems the only achievement of note is its ability to teach its students the perfect glottal stop. And what’s with Adele? Her song is OK, pretty good even. But are we that desperate for more Amy that we’re going to canonize a singer who, on the evidence of her segment of the Mark Ronson medley, seemed to have wandered in off the street?

Talking of Winehouse, she was literally the only good bit. Happily, she got two bites at the cherry. She couldn’t stand still and looked hugely nervous, like it was her first time on stage: skirt hitching, hair-twiddling, hopping around like a kid. But the voice: like she’d been singing for a hundred years. There was something thrilling about “Valerie”, as she seemed to be stunt-singing her way around the melody, without ever looking like she was about to crash. Adele, Kate, Leona et al can only dream.

But it says something that the best bit of the evening was a medley of old songs. The only other good thing, apart from Amy and the end, was that I missed Mika opening the show with his “Grace Kelly”.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Henry Plainview | Jonny Greenwood, OST There Will Be Blood

This epic fragment occurs right at the beginning of There Will Be Blood, as the light comes up on hills that may or may not contain oil. It's a precise musical analogy for Plainview's single-mindedness, as all the strings discordantly make their way to the same piercing note. It's terrifyingly loud, truly hair-raising, and a reminder of what an original musical language can do for a film, akin to the moment our old TV almost freaked out when the mothership starts singing in Close Encounters. Also astonishing is "Open Spaces", with its long unworldly notes and ondes martenots. Just a shame the soundtrack doesn't have any fragments of dialogue: be great to have "I drink your milkshake! I drink it dry!". Make a great ringtone...

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Radiohead : In Rainbows

I've been meaning to write about In Rainbows since its release a few months back. About how it's a record of a band on its best form. About how friends who previously would have rushed to get the measure of a new Radiohead record now seemed laissez-fare or outright hostile about In Rainbows, suspecting that it might continue where the unfinished sprawl of Hail To The Thief or the electro-jazzery of Kid A or Amnesiac left off. But also about how three or four of the songs on In Rainbows are the best the band have released. About how the record soundtracked my leaving of Australia.

But this guy said most of it, and said it better, so with apologies, read this instead:

"...all that mattered were 10 beautiful songs, some of the best of the band's career, that felt so expansive, so breathtaking, that Radiohead could've delivered them via USB wristband or some other such nonsense and I still would've gotten that scalp-tingle of joy that rushes through my head when art touches my heart.

The excitement of witnessing a great band hit a peak is a timeless thrill. To hear the strummed, magnificent hook of "Bodysnatchers" flapping like a seagull in flight as Thom Yorke screams to the world, "It is the 21st century! It is the 21st century!" is as awesome an experience as watching Kurt Cobain leap into a drum kit or Joanna Newsom's fingers drift across a harp. The trebled, drunken breakbeat that kicks off "15 Step" sounds so lo-fi that at first you think, "Oh, great, this download sounds like shit. I paid $22 for this?" But it's a ruse: When Colin Greenwood's hard, dub-heavy bass powers in alongside Jonny Greenwood's loopy guitar line, the song expands, the beat becomes tethered, and speculation on the what of In Rainbows seems as unanswerable as the why of this here vista.

The best songs on In Rainbows travel many melodic roads simultaneously: Big basslines skulk alongside meandering harmonies, drifting piano tones, and deep, unassuming ambient rumbles that subtly steer you along like a rudder on an ocean liner. Point A will no doubt lead to Point B in a Radiohead song—this isn't the Fiery Furnaces we're talking about—but the pleasure is in hearing how these five dudes who've been playing together for 20 years get there. On "Reckoner," the band stays tight for most of the song as though squeezed into a cubicle, but then—boom—the walls collapse, and we're in the great, wide open with an eerie, pastoral string section.

Granted, most of the time I have no idea what Thom Yorke is talking about: Usually it's a variation on "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up." No lyrics he's ever written have floored me like, say, the first statement-of-purpose couplet on P.J. Harvey's White Chalk: "As soon as I'm left alone/The devil wanders into my soul." In most of Yorke's lyrics, lines dangle, drift, are abandoned. Is the "elephant in the room" of "Faust Arp"—the one that's "tumbling, tumbling, tumbling in duplicate and triplicate"—the same creature that a few lines later is "dead from the neck up"? How can a single elephant tumble in duplicate and triplicate? Or is this lyrical cubism? And I can't imagine another lyricist getting away with opening a song on one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year with the line "Wakey wakey, rise and shine." The only Rainbows lyric that really tracks is "I have no idea what I am talking about," and it's best to take Yorke at his word and appreciate the beauty of his voice, which sustains itself like a patient bow drawn slowly across a cello. Regardless of what he's saying, Yorke conveys a profound sense of wonder and love.

Love. My friend Paul B. Davis, part of the art collective Beige, has posited that the relationship between humans and data is evolving, and that real-world emotions now figure into once-clinical computer interactions. He calls this movement Post-Data, and its aesthetic goal, he writes, is "gaining suffrage for microprocessors . . . data, in its cold and inherently meaningless incarnation, is over. Post-Data is all about feelings, and unconditional love for the bits. The Post-Data artist has an emotional attachment to the data process so strong that it's not right to just call it 'data' anymore . . . Post-Data gives you the faith to sit down, take a look at your computer, and say, 'I love you.' "

Maybe that's what In Rainbows made us feel—a rush of unexplainable emotion, a digital crush, a confirmation that things aren't like they used to be, that 2007 was a watershed that'd been building for the past decade but had yet to manifest itself fully. It felt to me like what Sam Phillips captured so eloquently in the first of Peter Guralnick's Elvis Presley biographies, Last Train to Memphis: "I was shooting for that damn row that hadn't been plowed," he explained of his quest for the King. Radiohead's 2007 felt like a similar shot: some sort of convergence that you just knew was coming, but exactly how it would arrive was still fuzzy. Now, some semblance of clarity has emerged—right?—and hearing the bundle sing from trunk-lid speakers, my head filled to the brim with Yorke's "Videotape" benediction ("No matter what happens now/You shouldn't be afraid/Because I know today has been the most perfect day I've ever seen") while a campfire spread analog warmth on my analog face, the future felt remarkably like the past: intense, full of mystery and meaning, thrilling, lovely."