Friday, 15 November 2013

Album Review: Poliça: Shulamith

I confess I’ve got a bit bored of writing album reviews, at least I thought I had, but it really depends on the music. Some you just like them, but have very little to say, and others you just can get your teeth into like Goldfrapp’s ‘Tales of Us’ and now Poliça’s ‘Shulamith’, it does help if they are a bit concept-y or have some intense videos to throw in.

That, of course, depends on how you listen to music too, whether just as background noise, or something you get completely immersed in. There are some I would listen to with others (more fluffy nice pop re styled by Miss Selfridge:  Polly Scattergood) and some I like in solitude because they are either weird or just impossible to talk over…and there are always those that can do both the social backdrop and intense. Shulamith is one of those.

I love its intense moments but there is gentleness in it too. You could clutch your head screaming ‘oh god’ listening to it or chat to your mum and dad over a cup of tea with it playing. I've got friends that would just think it was a pleasant noise in the background, the type that don’t listen to music (How!) and others that would prick their ears and listen properly. It probably helps that Channy Leaneagh’s voice is lovely, really lovely, sort of reminds me of Tracey Thorn’s voice (Everything But The Girl, now writes very well, see my Bedsit Disco Queen review here). There is also an undercurrent of melancholy and tension that weaves through the tracks and I personally like that contrast in melody and uneasiness.

I’ve already talked about ‘Chain My Name’ here, it’s the upbeat opener and probably the surprisingly hooky one despite its darker lyrics as it drifts into moody tracks likening in my mind to Portishead at times in the first half of the album. Here’s the track ‘Smug’, Poliça's are a band with lots of cool live clips when you start searching.

I like to pick an odd reference sometimes; three of the tracks, ‘Smug’ and ‘Vegas’ and ‘Warrior Lord’ have a couple of surprising electronic sounds, (the kind that make you go ‘oh what was that?)  One reminds me of ‘Summertime’, yes that 90s anthem from DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, there’s that groove, oddly, and very slowed down (I checked, and you can’t get that fucking song out of your head for days so beware) and another Aphex Twin (much cooler of course) ‘Windowlicker’, this one more so with ‘Smug’ in particular.

‘Torre’ and ‘Trippin’ kind of keep that groove thing going and its something that normally I would find a bit torturous. In this blend of feminist ‘hear me roar’ about identity, about chaining a name and the more obvious lyrical references to marriage and uncomfortable ‘Tiff’ which glitch-cities out on you as you think a new window just opened behind the track, it works beautifully and sounds uniquely Poliça . Watching the video, she appears to be beating herself up, or is it another lost name, whatever it is, its dehumanising and violent and strangely compelling and makes sure it doesn’t descend into absolute 90s frivolity in its sound. ‘Shulamith’ after some googling is named after a dead feminist author, Shulamith Fireston after all.  Credit here for this info to Katherine St, Asaph on Pitchfork.

‘Very Cruel’ sounds like it might be channelling NIN for a moment and ‘Spilling Lines’ is another one of my absolute favourites. Listen below, again, those beats.

The final part of the LP (I’m doing this on vinyl at 3 tracks a side, giving you definite parts, as well as worthy exercise getting up and changing the heavy thing over) seems to me the finalisation of a relationship.  ‘Matty’ wasn’t singing to my soul at first but there’s a super gorgeous beepy interlude in the matrimony (in the lyrics, you start to hear a play on identity and ideals via ambiguous naming) of this tumultuous story. 

 ‘I Need $’ really shows off Channy’s voice, the instrumentals remind me a little of Niki &The Dove (they seem to be lost in space with La Roux and the torture of the second album) and this one floats the idea of independence with the words ‘I don’t need a man’.  ‘So Leave’ is probably my least favourite, which is odd as it smacks a little of The Knife in places, who I love, but that’s just for now, as this album just grows and grows. ‘So Leave’ ends the album on a lighter note, a quiet and captivating journey of liberation wrapped in brilliant music.

Favourite album of 2013 is going to be impossible.

Stream it here on The Guardian.

Book Review: The Casual Vacancy: JK Rowling

The Casual Vacancy has received very mixed reviews and this did make me more curious despite a title that just didn't grab me. Perhaps not being bedazzled by her former magic (being a JK Rowling first timer) allowed me to enjoy The Casual Vacancy untainted (I'm just not that into wizards but I am sure her earlier work is  brilliant). I had no reason to worry that her young fans might pick up this hard hitting book, and why should JK Rowling, its obviously an adult book, nor did I feel the need to pun on the word muggle like crazy, or be traumatised by her frequent use of the word ‘cunt' among other colourful language.

There are uncomfortable descriptions of a teen being raped, prostitution, drug addiction, self harming, mental health issues, bullying, casual sexism and racism...and all this set in a small community, who'd have thought? (Probably anyone that's ever lived in one) But a large part of the message of this novel is how we look away from what is uncomfortable.

We all know to jump ship from children’s literature into adult is a pretty stormy one to make. I think JK Rowling has done a good job with this socially conscious writing, and going by her global success and people I know that swear her books are amazing, her writing has always bridged the generations, and she’s clearly a good storyteller. So why all the negativity, hmm I think mostly readers don't like their favourite authors changing track and this can manifest into begrudging her name on a book other than the creator of a boy wizard. No wonder she tried out a pseudonym for her crime novel.

The passion with which she tells the stories of this small town and neighbouring council estate are evidence enough for me that JK Rowling was writing from personal experience; a ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘not in my backyard mentality’ in modern society that she genuinely cares about, that is regarding poverty, struggle and mental health.

Yes it is furious in places,  it could be said it has a smattering of socialist manifesto, but at the foundation of it is the way JK Rowling has managed to pull you into the lives of people that in the past, you more than likely have tried to avoid, ignore or blame for a downward spiral in your community while basking in some of your own complacent privilege. We all know that poverty is the root of social unrest, domestic disquiet, harrowing abuse and Rowling writes the story in a way that, at the start, you may sit on the high horse of a Pagfordian, but gradually you unravel your prejudice and actually start to care about the characters from the Fields, particularly Krystal Weedon. Krystal's voice in the novel is hard to hear, she is mostly shown through others eyes and this I think was intentional.

Maybe the politics that simmer under the plot are what make the novel hard to digest for some? And perhaps JK Rowlings donations to the Labour party, and her involvement in the Leveson Inquiry, and the Daily Mail (among others) review of the book smacked more of a character assassination? 'Give us whimsy you champagne socialist' is screaming from a lot of the negativity surrounding it while her well documented personal struggles are ignored. The perils of being one of the most successful writers I suppose. In the interview linked at the bottom, she talks of how the Potter books have liberated her writing, despite having to hide from the press now.

As is always the case with a book review, I don’t want to give away enormous spoilers but here’s one (look away now). It begins with bad news and it ends with more. Everything between is simultaneously recognisable, shocking, mundane, despondent, small town yet big picture and ultimately it does feel like a personal piece. That is why its readable, touching and devastating; the real tragedy is that this ‘fiction’ happens right under our noses, there’s no made up world, no magic wands, and that’s the leap she made as a writer that you also take reading it.

Back to the title. The Casual Vacancy makes absolute sense to me now (outside of the local council terminology), a sort of laissez faire with emptiness and not interfering in the beds people make for themselves, a shallow grave of lives that refuses to see the web of cause and effect mingled with local politics because we don’t like seeing the inconvenience of poverty, or believe that one tiny shred of help could make a difference. The digital ghost can’t fill that vacancy through the children of the town and the outcome of the loss of Fairbrother impacts on the community in a sea of sadness you expect will blow over for most. So what can you do?

Read this book for a start. If you've got a pulse, you will get a lump in your throat. That's if you can be bothered to think about circumstances as well as personal responsibility. 

 ‘…and the congregation averted its eyes’. The last words of the novel leave it with a despair that almost smothers the tiny seed of hope in it, leaving you with an after taste that will ultimately open your mind to the devastating consequences of ignoring those that shouldn't be ignored.

Related Link:

BBC interview with JK Rowling

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Agnes Obel: Aventine

It is definitely Autumn now so embrace the airy and romantic with Agnes Obel as you skip through those leaves. Too much? Aventine has an ambience of contemplative and peculiar beauty, starting with 'Chord Left' as a suitably impassioned opener that leads into 'Fuel to Fire' which is just lovely (kind of Simon and Garfunkel in places with a touch of Cardigans, not theirs, the band obviously, and yes Kate Bush) How can you not be intrigued?  I won't spoil any more for you, just listen.

You can stream it first (occasionally advertisement interruptus) then rush out and buy it all windswept and dramatic in a fashionista poncho… and you ladies too of course. That’s if you can find a record shop. Sometimes you need a break from those pop beats and a little ivory/stringy magic to soothe your soul. Feel that love. Stream and share, share, share the unusual oddities dressed in beautiful melody that I would say is best enjoyed in the remoteness of your own solitude. Basically its not a party banger.

And here’s 'The Curse', my favourite so far but they are all muchy/samey on the delightful continual. She’s Danish, her voice is uber lovely and this is her second album, the debut  Philharmonics was very pretty too.

Talking of soothing my soul, in 10 days I will be seeing Depeche Mode at the O2 in a seat that may require a parachute. Excitous.