New albums from Sturgill Simpson and Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop.

A Sailor's Guide to Earth.

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

There’s been a lot of noise about Sturgill Simpson in the world of country and it’s not hard to see why. His third album, A Sailors Guide to Earth is, if anything, even more ambitious than his breakthrough album, Metamodern Sounds in Country Music from 2014.

It should have been a complete disaster. A concept album, which is bad enough, in the form of a letter to his newly-born son, which, obviously, is even worse, whose touch points are Sgt. Pepper’s, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Beatles-inspired, late Otis Redding. Amazingly, he lives up to those lofty ambitions whilst somehow still managing to deliver up what is undeniably an alt country album.

Otis Redding.

Otis Redding.

He might balk, albeit a tad effortfully, at that distinction, between country and alt country. But usually there’s a world of difference between the powerfully plain and straight as a die world of country and the more nuanced, quietly sophisticated realm of alt country.

But impressively, Simpson manages to straddle both worlds, and then some. The horn and string arrangements on a number of the tracks here are very specifically designed to recall the rustic, guttural rhythms that came out of Stax with their string and horns (and if you haven’t already seen the doc on Stax, reviewed earlier here, treat yourself). The results call to mind early Van Morrison. But then there’s also a very sombre cut of Nirvana’s In Bloom re-imagined as teenage angst.

This is an impressively ambitious album that is every bit as substantial as everyone has been suggesting – it gets an 8 from the boys at Pitchfork here. A serious album from a major artist. You can see the video for In Bloom here.

 

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

Love Letter for Fire.

Pop is so ubiquitous and the results so invariably saccharine and offensively MOR that it’s easy to miss the few grown-ups who work in the genre. Sam Beam has been recording as Iron and Wine for the last decade or so, and after beginning in roots Americana mode he has slowly but surely settled in the world of pop – his last album was reviewed earlier here.

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop.

He produces the same kind of thoughtful, articulate yet unabashedly emotional pop that you get from Jenny Lewis and Christopher Owens, and earlier from Squeeze and Everything But the Girl (in their earlier incarnation), and, from before again, with Carole King and Harry Nilsson (see the doc on him, reviewed earlier here).

On this latest album Love Letter for Fire he teams up with Jesca Hoop, who was mentored by Tom Waits after she landed a job working for him as a nanny.

The bad boys, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson.

The bad boys, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson.

Like all he best pop, these songs manage to be introspective yet upbeat with just a hint of melancholy. Their smooth, boygirl harmonies washing over you before disappearing again into the ether. Together with country, it’s the only other genre to resist black influences and not be rendered hopelessly redundant ever after.

They get a 7.5 fromt the boys from Pitchfork here, and you can see the official video for the single Every Songbird Says here.

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Transparent, yet another perfect US dramedy.

Transparent.

Transparent.

Transparent sounds for all the world like one of those punchlines from an early Simpsons episode, one of the ones when, God be with the days, they were still funny. A California family have to deal with the emotional havoc caused when the family patriarch comes out and decides to live out the autumn of his years as the woman he’s always known he really was.

Written, directed and mostly starring women, all it needed was to be set in a hippy commune at the Joshua Tree run by a latter day Janis Joplin figure, played of course by Holly Hunter, who takes under her wing the emotionally lost stray waif played by the blondie one from Girls.

transparent03

Jeffrey Tambor, right.

When the show’s creator and showrunner Jill Solloway gave an interview in the New Yorker with Ariel Levy here, and she mentioned her cameo as a gender studies professor in one of the episodes, she seemed to be discussing those kind of views with fervour rather than the hint of irony one might have been hoping for.

Happily, Transparent is nothing like that. It’s about a completely normal family, that is to say a gloriously dysfunctional one, who just happen to be financially comfortable and fantastically Jewish – it makes Curb Your Enthusiasm look positively preppy.

Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass as two of the three siblings.

Gaby Hoffman and Jay Duplass as two of the three siblings.

The three grown up children are all apparently successful if secretly rudderless and quietly lost. So when their father decides to come out in episode one, yes that emotional turmoil is to some degree explained. But more to the point, it’s yet another complication that they all have to deal with.

What makes Transparent so good, and it really is very, very good indeed, is that like Girls and Louie before it, it is first and foremost a drama, out of which the comedy evolves.

With a sitcom, even ones as sophisticated as Curb Your Enthusiasm or the late great Larry Sanders Show, their primary, indeed their sole duty is to make you laugh. But a comedy drama has to involve you emotionally, so that the laughter that arises from the mess the characters make of their lives is tinged with sadness and recognition.

Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams.

Lena Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Zosia Mamet, Allison Williams, those crazy Girls.

Of course you have to care about the characters in your sitcom for the jokes to have their full effect. But that’s not the same thing as being moved by them.

What makes Transparent so powerful is the forceful way that it engages you emotionally in the lives of its protagonists. So that by the time you get to the finale of season one, you’re left an emotional wreck after the carnage they wreak upon one another, in a way that only families can.

The genuinely great and now late Gary Shandling.

The genuinely great and now late Garry Shandling.

The writing, acting and production are almost painfully spot on, and the series glides confidently from the present day to the recent past and back again giving the whole family portrait an added poignancy.

If you were wondering what to do with your evenings, now that you’ve got through seasons one and two of Girls, look no further.

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A Death Row Tale; making a storyteller.

Making A Murderer.

Making A Murderer.

Of the many, many depressing things about the deeply disturbing Making A Murderer, the most troubling is the idea that not one but two juries of twelve men and women good and true managed to find Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey guilty.

As is the procedure with every jury, their duty was explained to them both plainly and repeatedly. They needed to be sure of the defendant’s guilt beyond all reasonable doubt.

To see him so obviously framed, couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game" Bob Dylan, Hurricane.

“To see him so obviously framed,
couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
where justice is a game.”
Bob Dylan, Hurricane.

And yet, these juries were able to hear how two men of significantly lower than average intelligence were able to violently murder a woman in their own home, before chopping her up and burning her in their back yard, without leaving a shred of evidence or a single drop of blood behind in the house as evidence, without having any doubt whatsoever as to their guilt.

I’m ignoring obviously the ludicrously placed car key that magically turns up in the middle of the floor in Steven’s bedroom, in an area that had already been searched six times.

Michael Peterson, astonishingly, behind bars.

Michael Peterson, astonishingly, behind bars.

That a jury could hear the evidence in the Avery and Dassey trial, Making a Murderer, in the Michael Peterson case, The Staircase, in the Adnan Syed case, Serial season 1, and in the Tim Cole case, from Paul Kix’s recent New Yorker piece ‘Recognition’, and not see in front of them a mountain of doubt forming before their very eyes is quite simply hard to credit.

Which is not to say that they were all necessarily innocent, just that there was some doubt as to their guilt. That anyone could have heard any of those trials and not come away with at least a few, reasonable doubts almost defies belief.

The most charitable thing that can be said, and I’m clutching at straws here, is that it is no longer reasonable to expect ordinary people to be able to ignore the media circus that inevitably springs up around the more lurid cases. And that the sort of uninformed, gutter, tabloid journalism that that produces is impossible for a jury to steer clear of in this age of twenty-four hour “news” coverage.

Adnan Syed, whose story is told in Serial.

Adnan Syed, whose story is told in Serial.

Perhaps it is time to dispense with the jury system when it comes to murder trials. At least then, all we would have to deal with is the gross ineptitude of the judicial system, and the blind prejudices of some of its practitioners determined to profit by it.

So it was with a heavy heart that I sat down to watch A Death Row Tale: The Fear of 13. After watching Making A Murderer, The Staircase, and listening to Serial, all of which are captivating if incredibly depressing, and Serial season 2 by the bye, is every bit as good as season 1 though in a somewhat different way, the prospect of witnessing yet another unimaginable miscarriage of justice really didn’t appeal to me.

I’ll not give any of the details of Nick Yarris’ extraordinary story away, except to say that eventually, and mercifully, it has a happy ending.

Masterful storyteller David Yarris.

Masterful storyteller Nick Yarris.

I’m almost embarrassed to have to confess that this is yet another Storyville documentary that I’m recommending (reviewed earlier here). But then I remember all those over-produced, idea-free franchise films, all those pedestrianly produced television programmes and all those needlessly published books that get foisted on us every week, and I remind myself that the likes of Storyville need to be celebrated loudly from the tops of every and all available rooftops.

But the last word has to go to Nick Yarris. It was incredibly brave of film maker David Sington to make a film made up almost entirely of one man sitting in a chair and talking to us. But then again, what a man.

When Nick Yarris went to gaol at the age of 22, he arrived there as an anti-social drug addict who was barely able to read and write. And yet, through nothing than his his own force of will, he re-made himself as a thoughtful, educated and deeply intelligent man, who would eventually be transformed into a dazzlingly brilliant storyteller. And what a tale he has to tell.

You can see the trailer for A Death Row Tale here, for Making a Murderer here, and The Staircase here.

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3 albums you might have missed.

St Germain, St Germain

St. Germain

St. Germain.

If you went to a house party, anywhere, any time during the first decade of this century, you will at some point in the evening have heard the lead single, Rose Rouge, from St Germain’s second album Tourist (you can see the video here) wafting from one of the rooms.

It was when you think about it a surprising recipe for success. A cerebral album constructed of layered tracks made up of acid jazz and obscure blues and RnB samples, all put together with painstaking precision.

Unsurprisingly Ludovic Navarre who is St Germain was somewhat taken aback by the 3 million units his album shifted, and he slipped back into the shadows as he tried to work out what to do next.

What he did was to dive into the heart of Africa where he’s lived for the last decade or so, soaking up their rhythms and the result is this, his eponymously titled third album. It’s as meticulously pieced together as the previous pair, but the result is far more organic sounding.

The emphasis here is on the beguiling melodies and musicianship of Mali, so that whatever’s sampled slips seamlessly in under the radar. If you haven’t been introduced to the majestic Éthiopique albums and haven’t been following what Damon Albarn, Brian Eno et al have been doing in sub-Saharan Africa then this is a great place to start. Either way, this is a pleasing addition to what is, happily, an increasingly crowded terrain. You can hear the single Real Blues here.

BOOTS, Aquaria

BOOTS, Aquaria

BOOTS, Aquaria

Boots produced and wrote the four best songs on Beyonce’s self-titled fifth album, as well as producing the third ep from this generation’s Spice Girl FKA Twigs – she’d have been dubbed Pretty Spice had she been there first time around. But he’s significantly more interesting than that would suggest. And Aquaria is his debut album.

Rather than either of the above, the person whose presence is most keenly felt here is, happily, that of his co-producer El-P. There is a nervous energy and agitated, sonic inquisitiveness that is matched by the enigmatic nature of the lyrics he produces.

David Bowie, any excuse for one final salute.

David Bowie, any excuse for one final salute.

Like Bowie, Burroughs, Thom Yorke and many more besides, he uses the cut-up technique of deliberately fragmenting phrases as an avenue into the subconscious.

Unfairly overlooked on its release – though not by The Independent’s ever reliable Andy Gill hereAquaria is a constantly questing, substantial debut album.

 

The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Beauty Will Save the World

Between 1987 and 1993 the impeccably named RAIJ produced two albums and a couple of eps. And that was that. But then at the end of last year, Lars Gotrich heralded the arrival of this their third studio album on the mandatory All Songs Considered podcast (reviewed earlier here).

The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Beauty WiIl Save The World.

The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Beauty WiIl Save The World.

Middle Eastern vocal arabesques sit on north African rhythms, medieval plainsong and Baroque dirges mingle with post-Romantic, Satie-esque piano motifs, found sound recordings from the American Bible belt slip in and out of focus recalling the pioneering work that Byrne and Eno did on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which in turn had been borrowed from Steve Reich. But instead of being viewed with the studied, detached disinterest of the New York avant garde, speaking in tongues is presented as something to be secretly hoped for.

If the phrase hadn’t been so hopelessly overused, you’d describe this as the ultimate chill-out album. Imagine if The Penguin Café Orchestra had gone into a recording studio with a bag of magic mushrooms, and the results had been released on 4AD. Beauty Will Save the World is as richly eclectic, musically sophisticated and sonically satisfying an album as you could hope to get your hands on.

You can read Lars Gotrich’s interview with them here. And you can see the video, all 9 minutes of it, for the track they discuss here.

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Storyville and this golden age of documentary film making.

Muscle Shoals.

Muscle Shoals.

The BBC4 documentary strand Storyville isn’t part of what is clearly a golden age of documentary film making, it’s the principle driving force responsible for bringing this age into being.

Since kicking off in 2007-08, Storyville has helped fund over one hundred documentaries, each one even more impressive than the last.

In the 2013-14 season there was The Gatekeepers where we heard from the last six heads of the Israeli secret service, the Shin Bet, reviewed earlier here. Plus the mythic Muscle Shoals: The Greatest Recording studio in the World, reviewed earlier here, and the fascinating Google and the World Brain on Google’s attempt to digitize the world’s books, and what that might mean for the rest of us. And then there was the absolutely riveting The House I Live In, on America’s doomed war on drugs, and the way that their whole penal system has become little more than an elaborate excuse for institutionalised racism, reviewed earlier here.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

The remarkable Rodriguez.

Then in 2014-15 there was Mugabe and the Democrats, the surprisingly moving Particle Fever: The Hunt for the Higgs Boson, and the majestic Searching For Sugar Man about the genuinely extraordinary singer Rodriguez, reviewed earlier here.

Here, very briefly, are four from the current 2015-16 season:

Cartel Land.

Cartel Land.

Cartel Land brings vividly to life quite how unimaginable life in Mexico has become. When his three neighbours are beheaded by one of the local drug cartels, the local doctor Jose Mireles decides it’s time to take the law into his own hands. So he and a few of his similarly desperate neighbours take up arms and set up the autodefensas.

And within a few weeks, he and his civic minded vigilantes are moving through the state, convincing citizens from village to village to join them, take up arms, and defend themselves against the marauding cartels.

Without wishing in any way to spoil the story, what happens next is all too predictable. It is staggering to witness quite how corrupt Mexico has become, at every conceivable level, from top to bottom. And quite how impossible it seems to be to free yourself from it. And although on the surface this isn’t a depressing film, the more you think about it, and you will think about it, the more dispiriting a place the world seems to have become.

A sobre Amos Oz listens to his younger self.

A sober Amos Oz listens to his younger self.

The six-day war: Censored Voices is very much a companion piece to The Gatekeepers above. When the celebrated novelist Amos Oz came back to the Kibbutz where he lived for so much of his life after fighting in the 6 day war, he and his fellow soldiers were so conflicted by what they had just been a part of, that they each recorded a series of interviews with one another so that they could air and explore that unease.

The basic question they asked themselves was, how can what was supposed to have been a defensive war result in the mass deportation of tens of thousands of people from their land?

Nearly half a century later, we watch as the elderly men listen to what their thoughts had been barely ten days after what many people at the time were celebrating as Israel’s finest hour.

The remarkable Brenda Myers-Powell.

The remarkable Brenda Myers-Powell.

FBI Undercover seems like an innocuous enough tale. We follow one of the many very ordinary, and completely unqualified people recruited by the FBI after September 11th to root out terrorism. And then we follow the Muslim man he has been sent to trap. And suddenly, without anything actually happening, a young man’s life has been completely ruined.

If you’ve ever wondered how Daesh manages to attract its recruits, this will go some way to help explaining it.

And finally, Dreamcatcher: Surviving Chicago’s Streets follows a reformed prostitute as she walks the streets of Chicago bringing life-saving succour to her former colleagues. Which sounds hopelessly earnest and horribly dull, but is in fact incredibly moving. Brenda Myers-Powell is quite simply a living saint.

So often documentaries feel like something you ought to watch rather than something you’d like to watch. In reality, all of the above are unmissable. And if you can’t access the BBC iPlayer, get yourself a VPN.

It will take about 10 minutes to set up, but once it’s done you’re set. I use SaturnVPN. It’ll cost you no more than about $20 a year. It’s like Netflix for the intellectually curious. It’s the best investment you’ll make all year.

You can see the trailer for The Six-day War:Censored Voices here.

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