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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Alejandro Jodorowsky’s magical film “The Dance of Reality”.

The Holy Mountain.

Jodorowsky as the mago in The Holy Mountain.

There are two drives that propel people to produce a work of art, one private one public. On the one hand, they have an urge for whatever reason to express themselves. And on the other, they fall in love with a medium, be it film, the album, the novel or whatsoever, and despairing at what today’s practitioners are doing with it, they feel compelled to create something interesting.

I was thinking about this while watching the new Bond film, and goodness knows I had plenty of time to drift off. Before the delights of seeing Daniel Graig shuffle so grumpily from scene to scene looking for all the world like a labourer forced to wear a borrowed suit for the day – and by the bye, declawing Bond of his class is like relieving a great white shark of its teeth – we were treated to a brace of trailers.

John and Yoko were big fans and launched El Topo in NY.

John and Yoko were big fans and launched El Topo in NY.

And for six or seven minutes, various costumed performers, played by actors, stood where they were told to spouting portentous inanities, as on the green screens behind them a succession of computer generated foes and perils appeared with impressive, dull precision.

And as interchangeable lines of dialogue were mechanically mouthed – they could have been from any of the other films in the franchise, or for that matter, from any of the rival franchises, but for the record the pair in question were Batman V Superman and Star Wars – all the seats around me shook, physically.

For the entire duration of the trailers, our ears were pummelled by an onslaught of digitally enhanced sounds, and our eyes were assailed by frame after frame, jam-packed with as much stuff as it was physically possible to cram into them.

It was the cinematic equivalent of being trapped in a pound shop on steroids. They clearly think that if they can force as much junk as possible into the one space and bombard our senses with it, no one will notice how unconnected each of the individual bits are, and what little substance there is behind the packaging.

El Topo.

El Topo.

No wonder Graig is so grumpy. He’s just an inelegant clothes horse around whom are placed as many overpriced products as it’s possible to pack into each and every frame.

What a fantastic time to be film maker. There is so much to rail against.

Both those drives, the need to express himself and the urge to do something interesting with the medium, are gloriously in evidence in the few films we have from the wonderful Chilean film maker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky is what a hippy would look like, if being a hippy didn’t expressly forbid you from pursuing any of your activities with any sort of actual intent.

He has spent his life expanding his consciousness in the pursuit of spiritual salvation, by delving into the inner recesses of his subconscious. He first burst onto the international film scene with the acid western El Topo in 1970, which effectively invented the idea the cult film and single-handedly launched the midnight film scene in New York.

Jodorowsky with his son Brontis in El Topo.

Jodorowsky with his son Brontis in El Topo.

John and Yoko were so impressed, Lennon put up $1m for his next film, The Holy Mountain, in ’73. Which, inevitably, proved to be something of a damp squib and is, truth be told, hopelessly self-indulgent.

After an abortive and outlandishly expensive attempt to film Frank Herbert’s cult sci-fi novel Dune – which David Lynch would similarly make a mess of – he moved to Paris and spent the next decade or so reading tarot cards. But in ’89 he made a triumphant return with the quietly bonkers Santa Sangre, and then The Rainbow Thief in ’90, before disappearing once more into the artistic wilderness.

But in 2013 he re-emerged to much applause when he presented his latest film, The Dance of Reality, at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Ostensibly an autobiography charting his lonely childhood in pre WWII Chile, it is both about the stormy relationship he had as a boy with his macho father, and an attempt by the now older artist to reconcile himself to his father’s memory.

Brontis playing Jodorowsky's father (and his grandfather) in The Dance of Reality.

Brontis playing Jodorowsky’s father (and his grandfather) in The Dance of Reality.

It is of course and as ever entirely bonkers but in a completely good way. At one point for instance, his father wakes up to discover the hunchbacked dwarf with whom he’s been sleeping has painted tattoos all over his paralysed arm in his sleep. And as he is walking down the road pondering this, he is met by a Catholic priest who looks at him disapprovingly and places an enormous tarantula on his withered arm, before walking off again. Neither he nor the spider are referred to again.

Imagine a Bunuel film directed by Fellini and peopled by amputee dwarves and hunchbacks. But in a good way.

What elevates this from all the other Jodorowsky films is that for once, the intellectual curiosity, mythological archetypes and spiritual yearning are matched here by an emotional investment that makes for a surprisingly moving film.

He’s 86 now, and is busy working on the follow-up. I hope someone has the good sense to give him the funding he needs. The cinema needs people like him to keep us all sane.

You can see the trailer for The Dream of Reality here. And the trailer for El Topo here.

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David Simon’s latest TV series “Show Me A Hero”.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

Winona Ryder, Oscar Isaac. photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/courtesy of HBO.

David Simon read Show Me A Hero by New York Times journalist Lisa Belkin in 2001, and immediately approached HBO about adapting it for television. But he got sidetracked with the phenomenally successful and justly lauded The Wire, and then by Generation Kill and Treme. So it’s only now that Show Me a Hero has finally made it to our screens.

As soon as he heard it was going ahead, Paul Haggis signed on as director without having to see any of the scripts beforehand. And it’s not hard to see what might have drawn him to it, apart of course from the obvious fact that it was Simon’s latest venture.

Haggis wrote and directed Crash in 2004, which explores the complexities of race and colour brilliantly, and could have been a masterpiece if only they’d held out against tacking happy endings on to three of its stories, those of the detective’s mother, the shop keeper and the TV director.

Crash.

Crash.

One of the first things that leaps out at you when you start watching Show Me A Hero is its apparent artlessness. A great deal of time and effort has been invested in rendering it entirely transparent. So that instead of using the medium to mirror the subject matter, as they did with the amphetamine fuelled fidgeting of The Wire, and the laid back languid southern rhythms of Treme, what we get here is Strindberg’s dream of being presented with something as if we were the fourth wall.

So the late 80s that the story is set in is seen not as the sort of stylized, immaculately dressed era that something like Mad Men would have presented it as. Rather, it looks and feels exactly as it did when you were actually living in it. Utterly, unforgivably vile, and cheap in a somehow expensive way. That hair, those shoulder pads, and the way that everything, even the architecture, all looks thin, insubstantial and devoid of any real depth.

The Wire.

The Wire.

The story centres around Nick Wasicsko who became the youngest mayor in America when taking up the reins at Yonkers, a suburb of New York City and a city in its own right within the larger state. For 5 or 6 years in the late 80s, its residents were up in arms over the social housing development that was being forced upon them against their wishes.

What’s so great about Simon is that he manages to keep his liberal sympathies in check without ever letting you lose sight of them. He focuses instead on showing us the multifaceted complexities that lie behind all apparently black and white issues.

There’s a reason the residents of Yonkers are so dead set against allowing public housing units allocated to black families into their area. Wherever that had been done before, the buildings that resulted all too quickly developed into Stygian centres for drugs and prostitution, and the organizational fulcrum for a network of petty, and not so petty crime.

Proponents of the scheme, which Wasiscko inadvertently came to front, said that that was only because of the way that those kinds of things had been handled in the past. That this scheme would be different (which, unusually, it was), and that in any case, they were only talking about a paltry 200 housing units.

Treme.

Treme.

I’ll not say anything more, other than that I just about managed to avoid looking up what the actual outcome was, so drawn in was I with the story, and so should you. But if you recognize the Fitzgerald quote, or know the book, you’ll know that the full quote is Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.

The one thing I can say is, and forgive me for sounding a little smug, but the whole sorry story is a dreadful reflection on that era and, dare I say it, America. Happily, the idea that the good people in the larger community might shun a minority to such a degree that they refuse to let them even live amongst them is, happily, not something that could possibly happen in this day and age. And certainly not in Ireland. Obviously.

You can see the trailer to Show Me A Hero here.

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Winter Sleep, the 2014 Cannes Film Festival winner.

Winter Sleep.

Winter Sleep.

Turkish film maker Nuri Bilge Ceylan made his international breakthrough with the powerful Once Upon A Time in Anatolia in 2011, reviewed earlier here. It won the Grand Prix, the runner up prize at Cannes that year, and his latest went one better, winning the Palme d’Or there last year.

As with Once Upon A Time, Winter Sleep was inspired by the short stories of Chekhov, and is in fact loosely based on two of them. But it doesn’t feel as obviously Chekhovian as the earlier film. Rather, it is the spirit of Ingmar Bergman that permeates his latest outing.

Bergman’s favourite film from his own body of work, not merely the one he was least dissatisfied with, but one of the few that he actually liked, was Winter Light. And it’s not hard to see what appealed to him about it. It’s his most unremittingly bleak film. And the only one of his mature films that he doesn’t saddle with a brief and unconvincing coda that tries to suggest some sense of reconciliation.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Indeed, the up-beat beat that Wild Strawberries, Autumn Sonata and most glaringly Through A Glass Darkly end with are so fleeting and out of character, that you wonder whether you really saw them there.

Ceylan claims that his film is in no way inspired by Bergman. But given its subject matter mood and title, he clearly doth protesteth too much. You can see why he might. Who wants to be compared to Bergman? He needn’t have worried though. Winter Sleep comfortably justifies such lofty praise.

Winter Sleep.

Winter Sleep.

At the core of this intense, intimate and unforgiving character study are two quiet if monumental arguments. Aydin, a former actor, is now the owner of the only hotel in an isolated village in rural Turkey, making him the one fish in a non-existent pond. In the first of these rows he is confronted by his sister, who is living there with him having separated from her husband.

And in the second, he and his younger wife clash in a monumental show down that has clearly been building for months.

Melisa Sozen in Winter Sleep.

Melisa Sozen as the long suffering wife in Winter Sleep.

The stifling sense of suffocating claustrophobia, and the strong feeling that you are witnessing a family row that you really shouldn’t have heard any of are quintessentially Bergmanesque. But in contrast to some of Bergman’s, Ceylan’s images are as meticulously constructed as his characters are complex. And as with Once Upon A Time, the film comfortably justifies the three hours it unfolds over.

In short, another major film from one of the few serous film makers working today. You can see the trailer to Winter Sleep here.

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