The New U2 Album, Robert Plant and Staying Relevant.



Long time U2 fans have greeted the launch of their next new album with increas­ing trep­i­da­tion. Last week was alas more of the same. The lat­est, Songs Of Inno­cence, sounds like the album from an off-Broadway musi­cal cel­e­brat­ing the youth of a 90s rock band. But unable to afford the rights to any of the orig­i­nal mate­r­ial, they’ve been forced to get a trib­ute band to do their best. They might well be inti­mate, per­sonal songs, but most of the riffs sound like they have been lifted clean off of the Joshua Tree.

U2’s prob­lem has always been Achtung Baby (’91). Which wasn’t just a seis­mic leap for­ward for the band at the time, it was one of the sem­i­nal albums of the decade. The prob­lem is, how on earth do you fol­low it?

Achtung Baby!

Achtung Baby!

Zooropa (’93) and Pas­sen­gers (’95) was the sound of band grap­pling with what to do now that they’d become the global phe­nom­e­non they’d always dreamt of. You could hear them intently lis­ten­ing to what was going on around them try­ing to feel their way for­ward. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (‘00) was a very pleas­ing col­lec­tion of con­ven­tional sin­gles, but was tac­itly under­stood as a brief hiatus.

But the three albums over the 14 years that fol­lowed have proved wholly unre­mark­able and have merely pro­vided the band with more of the same to per­form live with. So why not be done with stu­dio albums com­pletely? Because a live band is essen­tially what they’ve become.

It’s per­fectly accept­able in the worlds of RnB, blues and jazz to stop fever­ishly pro­duc­ing new mate­r­ial, and to spend your lat­ter years re-examining your can­non, con­cen­trat­ing instead on pro­duc­ing the kinds of live per­for­mances that only come with age and expe­ri­ence. What’s the point of fur­ther adding to an already impres­sive back cat­a­logue with mass pro­duced, sub-standard, replica copies?

Robert Plant.

Robert Plant.

Incred­i­bly few bands man­age that per­ilous bal­anc­ing act of fill­ing vast sta­di­ums and of pro­duc­ing qual­ity albums of gen­uine sub­stance. U2 are one, Led Zep­pelin were another. Amaz­ingly, Robert Plant turned his back on the peer­less 70s hell-raisers in 1980, and has been qui­etly plough­ing his own fur­row ever since.

His musi­cal wan­der­lust has seen him explor­ing the roots Amer­i­cana of the deep south, and of where all that came from in the music of west Africa. Unex­pect­edly, if quite cor­rectly, he burst into pub­lic view again in 2007 with his Ali­son Krauss col­lab­o­ra­tion Rais­ing Sand, which won the Grammy for Album of The Year in 2008 and sold by the tonne full.

Lullaby… And the Ceaseless Roar.

Lul­laby and… The Cease­less Roar.

Band of Joy fol­lowed in 2010 prov­ing for those not in the know that Rais­ing Sand wasn’t a blip but part of a fully formed renais­sance. And now he’s back with another new band (part of an old one actu­ally), with his lat­est album, Lul­laby and… The Cease­less Roar.

The Sen­sa­tional Space Shifters include mem­bers of the Strange Sen­sa­tion which he formed over a decade ago. He’s joined by both the key­boardist and bassist from Por­tishead, as well as Justin Adams, a pro­ducer who’s worked with Brian Eno and more recently the blues Tuareg band Tinawiren. That’s how you stay rel­e­vant. Musi­cally inquis­i­tive, reveal­ing, prob­ing and plain­tive, it gets an approv­ing 7.0 from the boys from Pitch­fork here. And could eas­ily have got more.

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Sumptuous documentary “Watermark” a striking visual essay.

The Canadian documentary Watermark.

The Cana­dian doc­u­men­tary Water­mark.

It was inevitable that the equiv­a­lent of the Slow Food move­ment would mate­ri­alise in the arts. And sure we’ve recently seen the return of the Big novel, indeed the Big Vic­to­rian novel. Long form essays and jour­nal­ism are increas­ingly vis­i­ble, and you can still buy your album on vinyl or for that mat­ter cd. Water­mark, the new doc­u­men­tary from renown Cana­dian pho­tog­ra­pher Edward Bur­tyn­sky is very much part of that trend.

The title refers to the mark water has left on our lives and the way that it has shaped every con­tour of every sur­face that those lives are lived out on. Indeed, it is lit­er­ally life. But it’s also a sub­tle ref­er­ence to the trans­par­ent stamp­ing of doc­u­ments and bank notes that are thereby con­firmed as being authen­tic.

4This film is very much a repost to all the CGI, and that tedious, patho­log­i­cal fear that all film, video and ads have of ever allow­ing a sin­gle frame to be left undis­turbed for any­thing more than a sec­ond or two. Before the ADHD-fuelled need to fre­net­i­cally inter­rupt it with the next even more urgent frame kicks in. And so on ad nauseam.

These impec­ca­ble and occa­sion­ally breath-taking images have been pre­cisely, indeed lov­ingly con­structed and care­fully ordered to con­vey an idea. It’s not hard to imag­ine what that idea is. He’s Cana­dian after all, and he’s talk­ing about what the human race has done with its most pre­cious resource.

H2O_SP_SAL_02_13Hap­pily though, the film never berates or lec­tures. It doesn’t have to. The pic­tures speak vol­umes. The obvi­ous ref­er­ence point is God­frey Reggio’s mag­is­te­r­ial Koy­aanisqatsi (’82). Water­mark is nei­ther quite as ambi­tious nor as demand­ing, which is both a good and a bad thing. It’s not as hyp­notic or as grandil­o­quent, but it is a lot eas­ier to watch. You’ll not need to be in the ahem right frame of mind to enjoy it. But it does sim­i­larly pull off that unusual bal­anc­ing act of being spec­tac­u­lar, even joy­ous to look at, whilst being qui­etly depress­ing to think about.

Here’s the trailer to Water­mark. And to Koy­aanisqatsi.

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Jesse Eisenberg in the Unconventional Night Moves.

Jesse Eisenberg in Night Moves.

Jesse Eisen­berg in Night Moves.

Kelly Reichardt is one of the few inter­est­ing film mak­ers work­ing in Amer­ica today, and Night Moves is her sixth film.

She first arrived albeit very qui­etly with her third film Old Joy in ’06, which “stared” Will Old­ham, as much as any­thing could be said to star him. If you are famil­iar with the pen­sive, qui­etly intro­spec­tive yet keenly per­cep­tive music that Old­ham has been mak­ing for well on two decades now, you’ll have a good idea of the sort of ter­rain that Reichardt’s films map out.

After Wendy And Lucy in ’08 star­ring Michele Williams, she teamed up with again Williams in 2010 for the decid­edly off kil­ter west­ern Meek’s Cut­off. Aus­tere and deter­minedly uncon­ven­tional, this is the kind of non-western that makes McCabe and Mrs Miller look The Mag­nif­i­cent Seven.

Robert Altman's famous anti-western.

Robert Altman’s famous anti-western.

Her lat­est film, Night Moves is sim­i­larly con­trary in its rejec­tion of con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive. Gone too are the beau­ti­fully con­structed vis­tas of Meek’s Cut­off. We are in the decid­edly hum­drum world of ordi­nary peo­ple try­ing qui­etly to stand up for what they believe in.

What makes the film com­pelling, as com­pelling as a film that eschews con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive can ever be, is that what they choose to do in defence of their beliefs is highly ques­tion­able. And, even more inter­est­ingly, it’s far from clear quite how cleanly held those con­vic­tions are.

Jesse Eisen­berg is the eco war­rior who teams up with Dakota Fan­ning and Peter Sars­gaard to do some­thing that will draw atten­tion to what it is that we are all doing to the planet. She has the funds and he has the expertise.

But the two men are clearly just using her for their own dif­fer­ent ends. Whilst she’s so vis­i­bly dam­aged she’s all too eas­ily led. Inevitably their plans begin to unravel, and the sec­ond half of the film focuses on the always com­pelling fig­ure of Eisen­berg, as he sinks into a Dos­toyevskian fog. The sound of every approach­ing car is ampli­fied, and every­one seems to be look­ing at him in a funny way.

Reichardt's contribution to the genre.

Reichardt’s con­tri­bu­tion to the genre.

Given what pre­ceded it, the film takes a slightly sur­pris­ing turn in its third act, which isn’t a dis­as­ter, but nei­ther is it wholly con­vinc­ing. But that only slightly detracts from the film as a whole.

Night Moves is a pleas­ingly unusual film, and a wel­come anti­dote to all that CGI sat­u­rated noise that pol­lutes so many of our cin­e­mas. And Reichardt is a name to watch out for. You can see the trailer to Night Moves here.

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Andrew Marr’s Great Scots on BBC2 and Scottish Independence.

Andrew Marr's Great Scots: the Writers Who Shaped A Nation.

Andrew Marr’s Great Scots: the Writ­ers Who Shaped A Nation.

Andrew Marr is a senior polit­i­cal fig­ure at the BBC, hav­ing pre­vi­ously edited the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent. More recently, in between host­ing Radio 4’s pres­ti­gious Start The Week he’s begun pre­sent­ing his own doc­u­men­taries. His lat­est, on great Scot­tish writ­ers in com­fort­ably his best to date.

The first episode was on James Boswell. Like so many Scots before and since, Boswell was torn between his blind­ing ambi­tion, which demanded that he leave Scot­land and head for Lon­don, and the resent­ment he felt at being forced to do so.

Bizarrely, he ended up team­ing up with the arche­typal 18th cen­tury Eng­lish­man, Samuel John­son. Even more bizarrely, Boswell lured the jin­go­is­tic John­son up north for a tour of Scot­land, which both insisted was the most enjoy­able cou­ple of months that either of them had ever spent.

The sec­ond episode was even more suc­cess­ful, not to say pre­scient, com­par­ing the con­trast­ing styles and pol­i­tics of Robert Burns and Sir Wal­ter Scott. Scott the con­ser­v­a­tive union­ist who har­boured dreams of rebel­lion, and Burns the Roman­tic poet par excel­lence who wrote in florid Scots incit­ing actual rebel­lion, but who worked by day as a tax inspec­tor for the British government.

Burns not only gets his own day every year, he managed to inflict that song on all the rest of us.

Burns not only gets his own day every year, he man­aged to inflict that song on all the rest of us.

Marr strikes exactly the right bal­ance between lit­er­ary his­tory and polit­i­cal analy­sis. Plac­ing these lit­er­ary giants in the con­text of the fierce polit­i­cal debate that fol­lowed the dis­solv­ing of the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment after the act of union in 1707, he sounds out the clear echoes with­out ever labour­ing the point.

As a proud Scots­man who nonethe­less left his native soil to take the British coin at the BBC in Lon­don, Marr knows only too well of what he speaks. Wryly, he reminds us, as the Scot­tish so often do, that Jekyll and Hyde was writ­ten by a Scots­man. That ten­sion that gov­erns how they view the land south of the bor­der and the peo­ple who live there has always been there.

So will the Scot­tish vote for inde­pen­dence this Sep­tem­ber? I get the impres­sion they are com­ing to regard that pre­vi­ous vote accept­ing union some 300 years ago with increas­ing shame. I’ve a funny feel­ing the heart might rule the head. That 9–2 is look­ing extremely invit­ing. In the mean­time, Andrew Marr’s Great Scots con­tin­ues on BBC 2 on Sat­ur­day evening.

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Robin Wright” in “The Congress”.

Harvey Keitel and Robin Wright in The Congress.

Har­vey Kei­tel and Robin Wright in The Con­gress.

The Israeli film maker Ari Fol­man shot into inter­na­tional promi­nence with the haunt­ing Waltz With Bashir in 2008. Fol­man, who is one of the head writ­ers on the hit TV show In Treat­ment, needed to revisit what he’d done as a teenager. As a young sol­dier he’d been part of the Israeli army’s appalling assault on Sabra and Shatila, when they invaded the Lebanon in 1982.

But the only way he was able to peer into the dark recesses of his psy­che was by using the cloak of ani­ma­tion, which acted like the dark of the con­fes­sional box, allow­ing him close his eyes and re-imagine what might have hap­pened there.

The Con­gress is his much awaited fol­low up. And it’s an almighty mess. Robin Wright plays a ver­sion of her­self, who is forced to sell the rights to her dig­i­tal self so that the stu­dio can go on to make the kinds of films with “her” that they’d like to, with­out hav­ing to actu­ally deal with the moods and tantrums of the actual human being.

Robin Wright as Buttercup with Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride.

Robin Wright as But­ter­cup with Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride.

But then the film veers wildly into wholly improb­a­ble sci fi ter­ri­tory, which it can only do by retreat­ing into ani­ma­tion. And not just any old ani­ma­tion, the kind of far out ani­ma­tion that’s meant to make you fondly recall The Bea­t­les in their Yel­low Sub­ma­rine.

I wish I could tell you that it were just too ambi­tious. But none of its Big Ideas are in any way explored, they are just bul­let points in bold. Will CGI allow Hol­ly­wood stu­dios dis­pense with Tal­ent all together? What’s more impor­tant, suc­cess or your fam­ily? Will future gen­er­a­tions be inca­pable of com­mu­ni­cat­ing other than through a screen? Is the dig­i­tal realm this century’s heroin? Our only means of avoid­ing the drudgery and dis­ap­point­ment of our daily lives? Etc, and so on.

Worse again, it’s entirely humour­less. Imag­ine what fun Woody Allen might have had with the idea of sep­a­rat­ing the actress from her dig­i­tal self. Come to think of it, he did have that idea, in his crim­i­nally under­val­ued The Pur­ple Rose Of Cairo.

Woody Allen's much funnier The Purple Rose Of Cairo.

Woody Allen’s much fun­nier The Pur­ple Rose Of Cairo.

The Con­gress is like that episode of the Simp­sons when Homer is encour­aged by his half brother to design his own car, which itself was a re-working of an old Johnny Cash song. If you take the best bits from your favourite films (or cars) and mould them all together, all you end up with is a dys­func­tional eyesore.

Robin Wright and Har­vey Kei­tel are two of mod­ern cinema’s finest actors. Even more remark­ably, both have man­aged that rare feat of nav­i­gat­ing the treach­er­ous waters between a large num­ber of small, inde­pen­dent films, inter­spersed with the occa­sional more com­mer­cial enter­prise. Hap­pily, in ten years’ time, no one will remem­ber that either of them had any­thing to do with this. You can see The Con­gress trailer here.

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