Wednesday, 26 February 2014

live review: of Montreal / Calvin Love @ The Art School, 18th February

Midway through his debut Scottish show, synth-toting songsmith Calvin Love decides to “go out on a limb” by playing a cover. The song in question (Love is the Drug) is about as safe a choice as you can get in the circumstances – an indicator that Love’s forte isn’t bold surprises but rather reiterations of tested dynamics. Still, his original material has a definite allure, with nostalgic, 80s-fashioned noir pop imparting a subtle intoxication; Love is the drug indeed.

What it doesn’t impart, unfortunately, is much energy, and the crowd that greets Kevin Barnes’ cosmic headliners is initially rather muted. But standoffishness isn’t really a sustainable option when a becaped man is enthusiastically thrusting his crotch in your direction, and as the room inevitably yields to the funky eclecticism snaking out of the speakers, of Montreal garner the reaction their animated performance deserves.

Concentrating on material from Sunlandic Twins onwards, first-half highlights include the dayglo chorus of The Party’s Crashing Us and the hippy strut of Triumph of Disintegration. But the best moments come at the tail-end, with a brace of Hissing Fauna tracks concluding the main set: first Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse and then an epic The Past is a Grotesque Animal in all its dark splendour. The latter makes for such an intense finale that it almost seems a shame to dilute the effect with an encore. But with demanding foot-stomps from the crowd threatening to bring down the newly refurbished Art School’s masonry, the band duly oblige, appending two more Hissing Fauna cuts for good measure. With costume changes, psychedelic backdrops and the aforementioned racy stage moves adding to the night’s showmanship and spectacle, the curtain falls all too soon.

Monday, 24 February 2014

GFF 2014: Festival Diary #1

You’re almost four days into Glasgow Film Festival and have a free afternoon begging to be filled – do you a) spend it desperately trying to remember which coat pocket you left your other tickets in, b) roam the city centre with eyes peeled, still hoping that rumours of a visiting Bill Murray turn out to be true, or c) attend 48 Hour Games – a choose-your-own-adventure documentary in which the audience gets to decide who to follow and what to see. Yours truly selects the latter (with a small amount of the other two options too, if I’m honest), and turns to the CCA to find out more.

48 Hour Games presents the world of game jams: gatherings at which ad hoc teams of programmers and designers are tasked with producing new and innovative games in an impossibly short space of time. Filmed at the 2011 edition of the Nordic Game Jam in Copenhagen, Danish director Suvi Andrea Helminen trains her camera on a selection of the convention’s enthusiastic participants, all powering through 48 hours of coding and testing in the hope that, when the klaxon sounds, they’ll have something functional and perhaps even fun to show for it. The teams drink a lot of Red Bull and even more coffee; by the end of the second day, the building presumably smells as ripe as old camembert.

But it isn’t the ‘what’ that makes 48 Hour Games intriguing but the how. Rather than cut her material down to a linear documentary, Helminen structures it as a series of forking paths, asking the audience to choose at each stage what they want to do next. Go for a beer with Team A, or eavesdrop on Team B’s brainstorm? Hang out in the lobby for a while, or hunker down in the confessional booth to hear the babblings of the caffeine-addled? We’re even offered parenthetical digressions – for instance, breaking off from a lecture to see what a particular individual packed in their suitcase that morning (look, we didn’t say they were always interesting digressions…). And to top off the participatory feel, our decisions occasionally unlock ‘rewards’, ranging from a snippet of chip-tune music to handy tips on how to salvage a coffee-covered keyboard (suck it up, apparently). It all adds up to a very distinct form of documentary: not fly-on-the-wall, but rather fly-on-the-wing, with the audience permitted to buzz between rooms in search of fresh points of interest.

Assisting us on today’s journey is Scottish Games Network founder Brian Baglow, who balances noob-friendly expositional asides with occasionally niche humour (for instance, we’re warned that the interface was done in Flash pre-HTML5, and therefore may well run into technical difficulties – a joke for the programmers in the audience and Esperanto to the rest of us). A consummate host, Brian encourages us not to hold back on making our preferences known, but is initially met with a rather reticent room – raising, for a brief moment, the possibility of an interactive film with which no one wants to interact. Perhaps we’re not ready for such responsibility, I wonder. Perhaps we’re better off having others make the editorial choices. In one of the film’s earliest clips, an interviewee states the importance of 'getting into a really good group' at such events, otherwise 'you just have a really horrible experience.' It’s a statement that creates a certain amount of pressure. What if we join the wrong group? I don’t want a horrible experience, I don’t! Luckily, the audience gets over its shyness once things are properly underway, locating its collective voice box and vociferously calling out demands.

After a while, our choices expose us a rather conservative bunch. After latching on to Team Brain – a motley quartet led by a banker called Troels, whose big idea involves hooking players up to a brain scanner and having them control their avatar through sheer concentration alone – we find ourselves curiously loyal, opting to stay close to their side at almost every juncture. For whatever reason, we rebuff encouragement to venture elsewhere and choose instead to watch riveting footage of hardware failing to install properly. Furthermore, our allegiance means that most of the shouts emanating from the audience wind up being variations on either ‘TROOOOELS’ or ‘BRAAAAAAAIN’, as if we’re auditioning as extras in some zombie Middle Earth mash-up. But while our largely single-thread journey may not take full advantage of the format’s explorative potential, it does foster a certain amount of investment in Team Brain’s fortunes come the final jury adjudications and prize giving. The game they deliver is, to my eyes, a Sisyphean nightmare in which you simply stare mutely at a screen, willing a caveman to push a boulder up a never-ending hill, but you can’t help but admire the passion and commitment that went into making it. And besides, in a world where Flappy Bird is downloaded tens of millions of times despite apparently being hated by everyone who’s ever played it, perhaps ‘Neanderthunk’ is closer to genius than my untrained sensibilities can recognise.

As Brian reminds us at the end, today’s screening of 48 Hour Games has shown us but a fraction of the full story, with scores more clips – and therefore thousands more permutations – available at the project’s website (48hourgames.com). Whether this novel synthesis of documentary and point-and-click role-playing game will be as much fun to navigate at home is questionable, but those with piqued interest should definitely consider giving it a try. Just remember to readjust to the more standard, non-interactive type of film before your next screening; outside of today, shouting ‘BEER!’ and ‘THREESOME!’ at a cinema screen is generally a shortcut to an early exit.

[written for the GFF]

Sunday, 23 February 2014

GFF 2014: 1939 Continued...

The star-dusted celluloid constituting this year’s ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ retrospective makes a strong case for 1939 being the most illustrious 12 months in the history of American cinema – and who are we to disagree? Of course, the year’s reputation doesn’t rest on Best Picture nominees alone, with hundreds of other films thundering through the Hollywood studio system across the same period. So where next to turn attentions once one has walked the yellow brick road, bid adieu to Mr Chips and delighted in Garbo’s laugh? Well, you could do a darn sight worse than this lot…


Only Angels Have Wings

A year after they made effervescent screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant reunited with director Howard Hawks for this thrilling action-adventure yarn, set in a fictional banana republic on the edge of the Andes. Grant plays a tough-minded pilot charged with getting the mail flown out on time whatever the weather, whatever the risk, while fellow marquee name Jean Arthur is the visiting showgirl who locates his sensitive side. But the real love story is that between the fatalistic pilot fraternity and their profession, with life-or-death choices taken on the chin and heroic sacrifices the order of the day.


The Roaring Twenties

A hard-edged prohibition tale told with plenty of moxie, The Roaring Twenties charts the moral erosion of opportunistic bootlegger Eddie Bartlett; a milk-supping First World War vet who gradually hardens into a ruthless crime boss in jazz age New York. In the lead role, a sly-eyed James Cagney conveys a perilous charisma that carries the saga through its decade-long sweep, while there’s stellar support from a tough-talking Gladys George (as the no-nonsense club owner who first leads Eddie astray) and a perfectly repellent Humphrey Bogart (as an old army pal turned volatile business partner). Last year, the GFF included The Roaring Twenties as part of its Cagney retrospective, so if you missed out then, now’s as good a time as any to track down a copy and remedy the situation.


The Hound of the Baskervilles/The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone wasn’t the first actor to inhabit the role of Arthur Conan Doyle’s master sleuth, not by a long chalk. Neither was he the last, with Cushing, Cumberbatch and a bonneted Downey Jr amongst those who have put their own slant on Baker Street’s most famous resident in the decades since. Yet for the last 70 years, his has been the iteration against which every other has been judged – the closest thing cinema has to a quintessential Sherlock Holmes. While later films in Rathbone’s 16-film series saw the character thwarting Nazis in contemporary wartime settings, these initial Victorian-set instalments – released a few months apart by 20th Century Fox – present the character in more familiar terms: first investigating one of the most famous cases from the Conan Doyle canon, and then battling Moriarty in a Tower of London showdown.


At the Circus

Granted, the Marx Brothers’ Paramount heyday was several years behind them by this point, but all the classic hallmarks are there if you look for them, from prickly wisecracks (“I bet your father spent the first year of your life throwing rocks at the stork”) to visual lunacy (a knockabout finale featuring a gorilla on a trapeze and Margaret Dumont’s society dame being fired out of a cannon) – and, in Groucho’s signature performance of Lydia the Tattooed Lady, the most memorable musical interlude of their entire oeuvre.

[written for the Cineskinny]

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

GFF: Five Picks From the Festival

The Glasgow Film Festival kicks off tomorrow night with Wes Anderson's new 'un The Grand Budapest Hotel. Over the coming couple of weeks, i'll be writing some official blogs for the festival as well as reviews and articles for the Skinny's festival rag the Cineskinny. To start, five films from the brochure that i humbly suggest are worth a punt...

Touki-bouki-plus-a-thousand-suns-web_thumb

Your spreadsheet proved to be more trouble than it was worth, your gut has revealed itself as decidedly less instinctive than you’d hoped, and if you keep throwing darts at the brochure you’re only going to damage it. Truly, there are better ways to resolve the dilemma of what to plump for at this year’s bumper Glasgow Film Festival.

However you go about it, make haste. The longer you dither the more restricted the choices are going to become: vacancies at The Grand Budapest Hotel are long snapped up and further enquiries about the Goodfellas Streetfood cinema screening will be met with a resounding ‘fuhgeddaboudit’. Which only leaves a few hundred more events to choose from – events like these:

Touki Bouki plus A Thousand Suns

When Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty died in 1998, the body of work left behind was relatively slender, his filmography numbering just two full-length features and a scattering of shorts. But Mambéty’s reputation as one of African cinema’s most important filmmakers was already long-secured thanks to his landmark, nouvelle vague-inspired debut Touki Bouki – described by Mark Cousins (one of the film’s numerous champions) as 'the most innovative African movie of its time'. Like so much of its home continent’s film heritage, Touki Bouki has been, for many cineastes in the northern hemisphere, a movie more read and talked about than actually watched, so this opportunity to see a restored print first-hand is exciting in and of itself. What makes the screening a must is the accompanying UK premiere of A Thousand Suns, directed by Mambéty’s neice Mati Diop. Neither wholly documentary nor fiction, it reportedly sees Diop pay tribute to her uncle’s work whilst meditating on its legacy, revisiting Touki Bouki’s principal actors forty years on and extending their characters’ story.

Stranger by the Lake

A late addition to the schedule but a very welcome one, writer/director Alain Guiraudie’s garlanded psychosexual drama has crossed la manche on a wave of accolades: best director and Queer Palm awards at Cannes, a top 10 placing in last year’s Sight & Sound poll, the top spot in Cahiers du Cinema’s equivalent list and a slew of Cesar nominations to boot. Its handsome trailer elegantly evokes summertime noirs like Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher or Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool, combining sex, sunshine and skulduggery as a young man falls for a potentially dangerous Adonis at a picturesque lake-side cruising spot. Like the waters on the shores of which the narrative plays out, there’s no doubt plenty going on beneath the surface of this lusty tale.

Unforgiven

A Japanese remake of the Oscar-winning revisionist western of the same name, Unforgiven is but the latest example of a longstanding, two-way exchange between the jidaigeki and western genres; a back-and-forth that encompasses Yojimbo’s refashioning as A Fistful of Dollars, the John Ford echoes of Seven Samurai (later repatriated by The Magnificent Seven), and the more recent irreverent reversals of Takeshi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django. Transposing Clint Eastwood’s celebrated original to 19th century Hokkaido, director Lee Sang-il (who’ll be in attendance on the night of the screening) adapts the central tale of vengeance to fit a fresh cultural backdrop, casting the reliably excellent Ken Watanabe as a remorseful former samurai coaxed back into action to provide for his children. The visually striking results appear to have retained the source material’s gloomy tenor, but the film promises more than a straightforward re-tread, with key alterations to the central character’s past (from cold-blooded outlaw in the original to conflicted warrior in this new take) offering plenty of scope for its themes of honour and redemption to resonate in new and distinct ways.

A Spell to Ward off the Darkness

An experimental triptych that journeys from an Estonian commune to a neo-pagan black metal gig via a stint wandering the Finnish countryside, this anticipated collaboration between artist filmmakers Ben Rivers and Ben Russell is likely to be one of the more challenging (but also, hopefully, rewarding) films of the Festival. Neither Ben is a stranger to GFF, with the 2012 edition hosting shorts by both, alongside Rivers’ debut feature Two Years At Sea – a film in which very little happens to curiously mesmerising effect. A Spell to Ward off the Darkness looks to be similarly bewitching, the trailer’s mysterious collage of burning buildings, scenic wilderness and black metal offensives suggesting an immersive hybrid of ethnographic documentary, contemplative video art and niche concert footage. The latter aspect has the distinct potential to stick in the craw of those with less extreme musical tastes, but Rivers and Russell are trusted guides worth following.

Night Moves

An eco-terrorism thriller from a filmmaker better known for small-scale character studies may seem an incongruous match, but that’s precisely what makes Kelly Reichardt’s fifth feature such an attractive proposition. Penned with regular collaborator Jonathan Raymond (who has written or co-written all of Reichardt’s films from Old Joy onwards), Night Moves stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning and Peter Sarsgaard as a trio of radical environmentalists plotting to blow up a hydroelectric dam – though given Reichardt’s past tendencies it seems safe to assume the dramatic emphasis will be more psychological than pyrotechnical. When you consider the wrenching emotional mileage wrung from Wendy and Lucy’s lost dog tale, it’s tantalising to imagine what Reichardt will achieve with a drama of considerably higher stakes – though as she proved with claustrophobic frontier drama Meek’s Cutoff, working within a familiar genre doesn’t necessarily entail playing by its rules.


And if none of those appeal: maybe try the darts technique again?

[written for the GFF]

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

reviews: Dum Dum Girls, Peggy Sue, Nina Persson

                                                Dum Dum Girls – Too True

Dum Dum Girls - Too True (***)

Diversifying her tried-and-tested sound with mixed results, Dee Dee’s third Dum Dum Girls album updates the project’s key reference points by a couple of decades. The fuzzed-up 60s girl group style is still discernable in the cinematic allure of Evil Blooms and Cult of Love’s surf twang, but other elements have wound on considerably from debut I Will Be, taking things in a cleaner, shinier pop direction.


The commercial aspirations implied by the chart starlet cover art (not to mention the slick H&M-produced promo for Lost Boys and Girls Club) finds sonic realisation in the album’s de rigeur 80s influences, with Rimbaud Eyes ripped straight from Tango in the Night and echoes of Benatar torch-songs, Siouxie-esque dark drama and a soupcon of Cocteau Twins all hovering in the margins. Unfortunately, it’s often too slick to stick (Are You Okay, in particular, has an undesirable Corrs-ish quality), preventing Too True from quite matching up to its predecessors.

Out now

                                                 Peggy Sue – Choir of Echoes

Peggy Sue - Choir of Echoes (***)
Poise, harmony, dexterity: three connotations of Choir of Echoes’ kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley-quoting artwork that are equally applicable to the songs within. On their third album, alt-folk trio Peggy Sue have gracefully raised their game another notch after the promising developments of 2011’s horizon-broadening Acrobats, revisiting existing metiers and cultivating new ones.


In places, it deepens their noir-ish edge, with the narrator of bluesy lead single Idle joining Robert Johnson in his Faustian pact and Electric Light’s uncanny doo-wop stoking the atmosphere and showing off the band’s vocal prowess (whilst also recollecting 2012’s reimagined Scorpio Rising covers collection). But elsewhere there’s a brighter tone – a contrast nicely encapsulated in album highlight Always Going, which lays ringing, distorted guitars across a light and breezy beat. Not every track is as characterful, but shrewd production keeps things buoyant through the few lulls, ensuring attentions never wander far from its central qualities.

Out now

                                                 Nina Persson – Animal Heart

Nina Persson - Animal Heart (**)

With A Camp having last borne fruit in 2009 and The Cardigans’ recording hiatus ongoing, Nina Persson’s debut solo record qualifies as something of a comeback: the first sign of her dulcet voice in half a decade, guest appearances notwithstanding. Her vocal performances remain disarmingly superb, with a seductive huskiness having crept in somewhere in the interim to add depth to her erstwhile carefree croon. But a singer’s nothing without a song worthy of their talents, and in this regard, Persson’s return falls short.


Throughout, Animal Heart plays things dispiritingly safe, with tasteful-but-tepid arrangements and blandly accomplished songwriting that tries on a range of hats (mild electro-pop on the title track; Disney Princess ballad on Dreaming of Houses; country lament on The Grand Destruction Game), none of which really fit. Here’s hoping that, whichever one of her outlets it comes from, Persson’s next outing furnishes her with material more befitting her vocal abilities.

Out now

Monday, 17 February 2014

Indy Rock: An Interview with Mogwai

With new LP Rave Tapes out now on the band's own Rock Action label, Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite and Barry Burns explain why, democratically speaking, five is a magic number

On the day that Thatcher died, Mogwai’s Barry Burns was in his adopted home of Berlin, missing out on the George Square Thatcher Death Party his band had prophesised on seventh LP Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will. Flying the Gwai flag was band-mate John Cummings, snapped next to Walter Scott’s pigeon cack-stained statue, clad in an Argentine Football Association top. “I was in Germany and saw the photograph of him, with a big smile on his face,” Barry laughs. “He’s a psychopath…”

Stuart Braithwaite, meanwhile, was having dinner with his girlfriend’s family. “I brought a bottle of champagne,” he smiles, “and someone said ‘oh, is it somebody’s birthday?’” His smile becomes a laugh. “I just announced how happy I was. And it went down really well actually.” Barry worries aloud that it “almost” feels horrible to be overjoyed by someone’s passing, but Stuart has his caveat sorted. “I think she’s the only person whose death I’d feel happy about… It’s got to be exceptional circumstances. Only exceptional bastards can have their deaths celebrated.”

2013 was a busy year for Mogwai. In addition to toasting the Iron Lady’s demise, it encompassed zombies and Zidane (more on both later), as well as the writing and recording of Rave Tapes, released late last month. Their eighth studio LP subtly expands their sound’s parameters, with modular synths evoking an epic brand of retro-futurism, and uncluttered melodies speaking to the band’s poise and restraint. The resulting atmosphere mixes insidious foreboding with lump-in-throat wonder; it’s clear that almost 20 years in, Mogwai are far from coasting.



Work on Rave Tapes began sometime in February, when the band’s UK-based members (Stuart, John, Dominic Aitchison and Martin Bulloch) got together to start throwing ideas around. Barry – who has lived in Berlin since 2009, co-running a bar in the city's Neukölln district – came into the process a little later, thanks to a minor logistical hiccup. “I couldn’t get a studio,” he explains, sat with Stuart in Glasgow’s Stereo bar after a day spent rehearsing. “Well, I had a little room in Berlin, but it took so long to get it ready. I got really panicky about it – it felt like I had just a month to write some songs. But it was fine, we managed. I just like to panic – I like that feeling of terror. It’s pretty much like when you play football as a child – that feeling where you’re chasing a ball, terrified.” Across the table, Stuart nods. “He likes to feel like he’s getting chased.” After one listen to the stalking soundscapes of Remurdered, it’s easy to capture a similar feeling of nervy pursuit.


"ONLY EXCEPTIONAL BASTARDS CAN HAVE THEIR DEATHS CELEBRATED” – STUART BRAITHWAITE


Barry offers a straightforward rationale for the album’s distinct palette. “We bought some new synthesisers, and so some of it’s just us trying to make use of them,” he explains. “I think that’s happened with a lot of our records – like when we got the Kaoss Pad for Rock Action; it’s on probably every song cos we were like ‘Oh aye, that’s amazing!’ And the vocoder as well… So yeah, it sounds obvious to say it but the tools you’re using have a big influence on the sound, maybe more so than the music you’re listening to at the time. Although,” he adds, “there’s quite a lot of John Carpenter-esque things on this record…” Stuart jokes that the auteur – whose scores for the likes of Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog are arguably as influential and celebrated as his directorial work – is “after them,” as a result of the sonic similarities. “He’s after us, is he?” laughs Barry. “Oh well, he must be getting on by now, fuck him.”

On the subject of soundtracks, Mogwai’s 2013 featured a brace of them: their score for French-language zombie drama Les Revenants, released in February; and 2006’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, revisited last July for a short run of live shows. “It doesn’t feel like there was much space between doing that and doing the album,” says Barry of the latter, referencing a bottleneck that saw their Rave Tapes prep-time squeezed by Zidane rehearsals. “Yeah, it was a very busy summer,” agrees Stuart. “Zidane was written on the hoof, so rehearsing for that was like learning new music. It was a great experience though – it made me think more about how some of our more abstract things work. Certainly I felt more confident going into this record after doing it.”

Barry concurs. “We said at the time, it was the most we ever practised for something. It was a lot of work, but it really was brilliant. I still remember the feeling of relief after that first gig [at the Manchester International Festival], because it had worked really well and people seemed to enjoy it.” Were they not disappointed, then, to only get to perform it a handful more times? “Yeah, I think we kind of expected that a lot more people would ask us to do it,” Barry admits. “We were expecting a cluster of gigs, not just two or three. The requests will probably all start coming in now,” he rues, “when we can’t do them…”

One request that couldn’t have been better timed, however, was Les Revenants. An existing fan of their work, creator Fabrice Gobert got in touch back in 2012, and the band were suitably intrigued by the pitch: a return-of-the-living-dead tale with an existentialist edge, in which a town’s dearly departed re-appear and attempt to pick up their lives where they left off. A fresh take on zombie-lore, its dread-laced ambience owed much to Mogwai’s majestic score.

“I think he’d had a Sonic Youth soundtrack for one of his things before,” says Barry, alluding to Gobert’s 2010 film Lights Out, named after a song from the New York band’s 2006 LP Rather Ripped, “so I think he just didn’t want to have bulk-standard strings and choral stuff, you know? A lot of people are doing that now.” He pauses. “Which means it will probably get the arse kicked out of it and people will go back to strings and choral stuff again! But yeah, it was nice that he asked us. It’s something that seems quite natural for us to do.”

The Skinny asks whether working on the show has expanded their fan base, perhaps bringing them to the attention of people who are partial to prestige telly but to whom the world of Mogwai was previously a mystery. “In theory, aye,” says Stuart, acknowledging a spike in sales when the programme aired on Channel 4 over the summer. “Straight back into the charts!” jokes Barry, “to number 1000 or whatever it was…” Still, even a modest bump seems a fair indication that new ears were being turned on to the band’s work – a presumption lent credence a week after our interview, when author Stephen King tweets praise for the show, soundtrack included (“I’m going to find them. It is very fine music...”).

But with the Zidane shows in the past and Les Revenants' second season yet to come (“we’re talking about it just now” Stuart confirms), Mogwai’s present is firmly focused on Rave Tapes. Recorded and mixed at the band’s own Castle of Doom studio, it saw former Delgado Paul Savage return to the producer’s chair having previously worked on Hardcore Will Never Die and Young Team. Despite the tight scheduling, the band ended up with “more than enough songs.” Consequently, Stuart deadpans, “every single member of the band hates the songs that are actually on the album.”

The final consensus/compromise, Barry explains, was reached via “a hilarious spreadsheet” and producer Paul, who acted as “a kind of referee” whenever there were conflicting opinions. “And then”, adds Stuart, “it gets even more complicated because I always want more songs on the record than everyone else.” Barry jokes that, if Stuart had his way, all their albums would be spread across triple vinyl. “I do like a long record,” Stuart confirms, “but anyway: that milk has long since been spilled…” Just how long do these tracklisting disputes tend to last? He grins. “Oh not long, but the bitterness – it lingers eternally.”

“It’s going to make us die young,” laughs Barry. “I used to sometimes play in The Delgados, and I remember being in one of their rehearsals years and years ago and they would argue about the slightest thing – you know, have a big conversation about a single note.” And yet now they have one-time Delgado Paul Savage acting as adjudicator? “See, their mistake was having four people in the band,” Stuart argues. “If you’ve got five then there’s always a winner. You might have two profoundly upset people, but they just have to deal with it.” Were there any tracks that he’d have been adamant about including no matter what? “Nah, because you just go with what everybody says, and then write it in your personal file of ‘Reasons why Barry, Dominic, Martin and John are fucking idiots.’”

“That’s a big tome, that,” Barry interjects, prompting Stuart to sigh with faux-exasperation. “It’s this shite democracy we have, that’s what it is. It’s terrible.” Speaking of big tomes and democracy – our interview takes place the day before the release of ‘Scotland’s Future,’ the 670-page white paper laying out the Scottish government’s case for a Yes vote in September’s referendum. While the whole band is in favour of an independent Scotland, Stuart has been a particularly prominent and passionate advocate, making the case via television appearances and public discussions. “I think some of the anti-independence people will get a bit of a surprise as to how much thought has been put in to this for a rather long time,” he says of the white paper, “and I think it might make it quite a lot harder to paint it as a poorly thought-out idea. That said, the new 'No' argument will probably be ‘Oh, they’re making these promises, how can they say this when there’ve been no negotiations’…” He shrugs. “It’s all just posturing, really.”

The conversation turns to some of the more unusual anti-independence arguments aired thus far – for instance, an article in the Sunday Times ‘cautioning’ Scots that the Queen might visit Balmoral less often should the Union split. “But my favourite,” says Stuart, “was Alistair Darling saying that British music will not belong to us anymore.” He stops to ponder the implications of the Better Together chairman’s monition. “I tell you what, if someone came and took my Joy Division records away I’d maybe think about changing my mind,” he decides, “but I somehow find that unlikely.” Independently minded in every sense, Mogwai ain’t for turning.



[article written for The Skinny]

Sunday, 16 February 2014

friday = dancing at bottle rocket


We’ve noticed that if there’s one thing guaranteed to grab the internet’s attention, it’s a list. So here’s a list of 5 things you absolutely MUST know about the next bottle rocket.

1. It’s at the Flying Duck (which might mean toast)

2. It’s on the 21st February

3. It starts at 11pm and goes on late.

4. It’s free if you get down early enough, or £5/3 after.

5. It will probably sound like Prince, and also Sleater Kinney, New Order, Television and Bowie. There may well be Go-Betweens and Talking Heads, and maybe Pixies, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Jesus and Mary Chain; XTC and ESG, REM and OMD; Velvet Underground, Springsteen and Chvrches. A whole lotta great, basically.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

reviews: Model Village, Father Murphy, Lacrosse

                                              Model Village – Too True You Chose These Woes

Model Village - You Chose These Woes (***)

Miniature model building and penning bright and tuneful alt-pop: two pastimes in which a delicate touch is a valuable asset. On their second album, Cambridge’s Model Village show a knack for the complex art of keeping things simple, with straightforward melodies that merrily dance their way into the memory banks and measured arrangements that ensure the songwriting its breathing space.

With a trio of accomplished vocalists taking turns at lead, Fleetwood Mac circa Rumours are an acknowledged influence – and certainly, there’s a hint of Don’t Stop to Jaguar’s opening chords. But despite some nice AOR touches (for instance, the guitar solo that tails 19, or the soaring chorus of closing ballad No Personal Touch), You Chose These Woes sits closer in style to indie acts like Edinburgh’s Aberfeldy or Melbourne’s The Lucksmiths, with the outlying gothic folk of Oh My Sisters indicating the full variety of which they’re apparently capable.

Out now

                                              Father Murphy – Pain is On Our Side Now

Father Murphy - Pain Is On Our Side Now (***)

Tackled individually, the four movements that make up Father Murphy’s latest EP are formidably severe: an atonal collection of clanging semi-rhythms, draining drones and ghastly wails; elements found throughout the Italian trio’s enigmatic oeuvre but here taken to extremes.

Yet these tracks are split across two single-sided 10”s for a reason, and once paired up and played simultaneously, the pieces slide into place like a Cenobite puzzle box, revealing new dynamics. The first coupling, for instance, sutures the hellish braying of side one to the chopped gabbles and screams of side two, each infernal component amplifying the other’s effect. The conceptual cleaving may render Pain is On Our Side Now a fans-only curio, but members of said sect will be suitably bewitched.

Out now

                                              Lacrosse – Are You Thinking of Me Every Minute of Every Day?

Lacrosse - Are You Thinking of Me Every Minute of Every Day? (**)

It’s been almost five years since Stockholm sextet Lacrosse last released an album, yet Are You Thinking of Me… demonstrates a Peter Pan-like refusal (or perhaps inability) to grow up. Their brand of earnest indie-pop remains overbearingly cutesy – in the same ballpark as acts like I’m From Barcelona, but extra-sugared – with any significant deviations from 2009’s Bandages for the Heart mostly for the worse.

The best tracks are the most straightforward: the slow-swell build of If Summer Ends favourably recalls fellow Swedes Shout Out Louds; I Told You So (Didn’t I?) instils its happy-go-lucky pop with just the right dose of peppiness; and Don’t Be Scared has a nicely uplifting, we’re-all-in-this-together vibe courtesy of unified boy/girl vocals and a rousing, string-backed refrain. But elsewhere things get saccharine (see: the break-up wibbling of The Key), while tracks like 50% of Your Love try something different but sound uncomfortable, diminishing Lacrosse’s chirpy charms.

Out now

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

reviews: Dear Reader, Paper Beat Scissors, Patterns

                                              Dear Reader – We Followed Every Sound

Dear Reader - We Followed Every Sound (***)

Revisiting recent concept album Rivonia with the help of the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg orchestra, We Followed Every Sound highlights much of what made its parent LP – a kind of South African Let England Shake in which Dear Reader’s Cherilyn MacNeil surveyed her hometown of Johannesburg through a lens both personal and political – so ambitious and rewarding. But beyond applying symphonic depth to Rivonia’s already handsome instrumentation, the appeal of these live recordings is somewhat limited.

The gig itself may well have been a night to remember, but replayed at home We Followed... lacks its studio-recorded forebear’s thematic coherence and precise structure, with the inclusion of (lesser) material from earlier Dear Reader albums arguably diluting the effect. Nonetheless, look past the muddy raison d’etre and the album’s elegant musicianship sells it, with the Film Orchestra’s flourishes enhancing the material’s latent drama. In all, a pleasant postscript, if not quite a stand-alone success.

Out now

                                              Paper Beat Scissors – Paper Beat Scissors

Paper Beat Scissors - Paper Beat Scissors (***)

Released back in March 2012 in his adopted home of Canada, Burnley-born songwriter Tim Crabtree belatedly brings his debut album as Paper Beat Scissors to the UK. It introduces a performer of not insignificant talent, with an expressive vocal style as comfortable at whisper level as it is raised, raspy and raw, and a solid line in pensive balladry to set it to. Musically, too, there’s plenty to admire, with Crabtree and his esteemed Canuck collaborators (including members of The Luyas and Bell Orchestre) squarely hitting their marks with a collectedly delicate touch.

The trouble is, there’s no shortage of acts trading in precisely the same stock, and Paper Beat Scissors lacks the spark necessary to turn its chilly pleasantness into something with more pronounced powers of attraction. Nevertheless, enough tracks come close (see: the eyes-closed tremors of Folds; the horn-infused crawl of Once) that interest in its 2014 follow-up is suitably piqued.

Out now

                                              Patterns – Waking Lines

Patterns - Waking Lines (***)

From the opening echoes of This Haze onwards, Waking Lines sounds impressively lush and layered – not bad when you consider Patterns eschewed studio time to record it themselves at home. As well as demonstrating their sonic resourcefulness and nuanced grasp of dream-pop dynamics – all swirling vocals, twinkling guitars, atmospheric samples and so forth – the Manchester quartet’s debut evidences clear songwriting talents, with an anthemic edge giving definition to tracks like Blood.


But if ‘pattern’ is another way of saying ‘repeated decoration,' then the Manchester quartet live up to their name a little too well. With a relatively narrow selection of tricks at their disposal, a sense of déjà vu enters somewhere in the second half – a hazy sameness that initially augments the pretty, diaphanous dreaminess, but which over repeated listens diminishes the album’s magnetism. Not quite scaling the heavens then, but for a first stab they’ve come admirably close.

Out now

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

GFT programme note: Dallas Buyers Club



Dallas-buyers-club-web_thumb


Ron Woodroof first appeared in the pages of the Dallas Morning News in May 1989. ‘The closet in Ron Woodroof’s bedroom looks like a miniature pharmaceutical warehouse’ wrote reporter Sherry Jacobson as a way of introduction, listing ‘pint bottles of hydrogen peroxide, packets of dextran sulphate and small containers of a drug called Procaine PVP’ as amongst the room’s contents. ‘From his tiny Oak Lawn apartment, Mr Woodroof is operating one of the largest distribution centers for experimental AIDS treatments in the United States... “I am my own physician,” said Mr. Woodroof, 39, a former electrical contractor who founded the club in March 1988, shortly after his AIDS was diagnosed. Currently, he is taking three experimental treatments that he believes have reduced his suffering and extended his life.’[1] A quarter of a decade on, Jacobson’s opening paragraphs double as a partial précis for director Jean-Marc Valée’s screen adaptation of Woodroof’s story.

Later in 1989, Jacobson filed a follow-up report, in which Woodroof starkly expressed the high stakes driving his illegal activities. Diagnosed with AIDS at a time when research was still nascent, official treatment options limited, and approval for new medications granted at a pace too slow to offer much concrete hope, importing untested drugs from outside the US was, he argued, the least risky option available to him.  ‘I do not want to break any laws’ he is quoted as saying. ‘But doing nothing will only result in my death.’[2] This back-against-the-wall, do-or-die attitude was echoed in a subsequent Dallas Life Magazine cover story entitled ‘Buying Time’, published in 1992. ‘It is not a matter of whether or not you want to take these risks’ Woodroof told reporter Bill Minutaglio, ‘it's a matter that you have to take these risks.’[3]

From these quotations alone, the cinematic potential of Woodroof’s desperate times/desperate measures tale is evident. As Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack’s script acknowledges, Woodroof did not invent the concept of ‘buyers clubs’ – underground distribution networks that enabled people with AIDS to buy pharmaceutical drugs that the Food and Drug Administration were unwilling to approve – but the boldness with which the former electrician challenged the federal government’s authority ensured Woodroof stood out. In the second line of ‘Buying Time’, Minutaglio describes Woodroof as a ‘foul-mouthed outlaw as wiry as an ocotillo’,[4] comparing the smuggler’s frame to a spindly cactus-like plant native to the southwestern states. It’s an evocative image that already resembles a casting call or pitch.

There has been, however, a certain amount of criticism and controversy regarding the structure that Borten and Wallack chose to impose on the bare facts of Woodroof’s life. The flexibility with which the screenwriters approached the subject is indicated by the fact that, Woodroof aside, every person in the film is fictional. Some are composite characters – for instance, Doctors Eve and Sevard, standing in for all physicians. Others are tokenistic inventions calibrated to serve specific plot functions – most notably Rayon, the HIV-positive transgender woman with whom Ron becomes business partners, whose narrative role is effectively to facilitate and underscore the main character’s redemptive journey from homophobia to compassion, understanding and respect. Borten wrote the script’s first iteration in the early 1990s, based on three days-worth of first-hand interviews, but it took twenty years of stalled productions and re-writes to bring it to the screen. Perhaps this explains the schematic, streamlined efficiency of the eventual film’s narrative arc, with the script’s mechanics particularly apparent in the opening scenes.

The first has Ron concealed in a shadowy rodeo stall, entangled in a drug-fuelled threesome with two women. A few yards away, partially glimpsed through the slats of the stall gate, a young cowboy tries futilely to hang on to a bucking bull, hitting the ground hard when he is eventually thrown. As rodeo clowns drag the prone rider to safety, Ron climaxes – though the harsh ringing sound that envelops the soundtrack indicates that the experience is less than pleasurable. This is then followed by a scene in which Ron calls the recently deceased Rock Hudson ‘a cock sucker’ whilst accepting chancy wagers on the next bout of bull riding. As an introduction, it serves multiple ends: it implies a connection between illicit sexual activity and danger; it explicitly aligns the audience’s visual and auditory experience with Ron’s perspective; it presents bigotry and risk-taking as two defining personality traits; and, perhaps most forcefully (and, to some, problematically), it defines Ron in emphatically heterosexual and stereotypically macho terms. 

The way these scenes portray Woodroof’s character also helps to establish the story as statistically exceptional, with Dallas Buyers Club mediating the history of buyers clubs in general through the actions and experiences of a straight protagonist. Some have consequently expressed disappointment at the film’s narrow focus – yet to expect one modest character study to shoulder the representational burden of an entire period seems an unreasonable request, which is why Dallas Buyers Club is able to qualify as an engaging and thoughtful piece of cinema even as it clumsily elides or misrepresents elements of its historical basis. Its insights into both Woodroof and the buyers club phenomenon are far from the last word, with a raft of corrective testimonies and accounts having recently proliferated online in response to the film’s release, forcing a parallax perspective on the script’s representational claims. But positioned in a cinematic landscape in which narratives that openly address the lives of people with AIDS from anything other than a tragic victim angle remain exceedingly rare, a bold, crowd-pleasing take such as this seems welcome.

Christopher Buckle
Journalist and researcher
February 2014


[1] Sherry Jacobson (1989), ‘Club dispenses experimental AIDS drug’, Dallas Morning News, May 17th 1989, accessed at http://www.dallasnews.com/entertainment/movies/headlines/20131101-club-dispenses-experimental-aids-drugs.ece

[2] Jacobson (1989), ‘Man taking unapproved AIDS drug FDA is challenged over Compound Q’, Dallas Morning News, October 5th, 1989, accessed at http://www.dallasnews.com/entertainment/movies/headlines/20131101-man-taking-unapproved-aids-drug-fda-is-challenged-over-compound-q.ece

[3] Bill Minutaglio (1992), ‘Buying Time’, Dallas Life Magazine, August 9th, 1992, accessed at http://buyersclubdallas.com/

[4] Ibid

Monday, 10 February 2014

live review: The Wave Pictures / Eugene Tombs / The Yawns @ Mono, 30th January

For reasons unknown, The Yawns have a battle on their hands eliciting a response from Mono’s mostly seated denizens tonight, with even polite applause peculiarly unforthcoming. Not that the band seem fazed, with frontman Sean Armstrong insouciantly strolling the empty floor while the rest of the Glasgow five-piece proffer lightly tousled melodies that, it’s fair to say, merit greater enthusiasm.

With the room starting to fill, Eugene Tombs have an easier time of it – and certainly, a dose of wonky clarinet in the opening instrumental proves an effective attention-grabber. The rest of the set is comparatively conventional but equally exciting, with a combination of Shadows-like reverb guitar and cosmic psychedelia that at times recalls XTC-side project The Dukes of Stratosphear.

This is The Wave Pictures’ fifth visit to Mono in the space of a year, including a three-night residency last April. Still, with their most recent album topping 90-minutes, there’s no shortage of strong material to disburse Glasgow’s way, and tonight makes clear just why they’re welcomed back so regularly. Dave Tattersall’s versatile guitar playing is a particularly distinct draw, whether he’s delivering bluesy riffs, engaging in agile soloing or gently picking out the sparkling refrain of Red Cloud Road (a highlight of the set).


Vocally, too, Tattersall is customarily engaging, both in the content of his lyrics and their delivery: raw and personal on New Skin, witty and playful on Spaghetti. The easy camaraderie onstage translates to a cheery atmosphere off, and when they wrap up proceedings with a woozy run through Tiny Craters in the Sand, it’s a safe bet that a few in attendance are already counting down the days to the band’s inevitable return.