Archives for December 2011

5 Best Albums of 2011.

5. Let England Shake – PJ Harvey

Justly lauded when it was released in February, Harvey’s eighth studio album landed her a second Mercury Prize after Stories from the City, Stories From The Sea in 2000. Ostensibly, Let England Shake delves into the psychic scars left in the aftermath of the First World War. But for all the heartfelt angst of her lyrics, it is as ever the bewitching drive of her music that once again proves so beguiling. There’s an eerie menace to her sound that’s pleasurably threatening and draws you inexorably in. And despite making probably her most accessible album to date, she remains gloriously unconventional.

4. Diamond Mine – King Creosote and Jon Hopkins

Occasional collaborators and fellow Scots Meursault describe the songs they produce as “epic lo-fi”. That describes perfectly the music that Kenny Anderson makes under the moniker King Creosote. And when he teamed up with indietronica producer Jon Hopkins for Diamond Mine, he was finally able to enjoy some belated recognition when they were nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize. Incredibly, this is (roughly) his fortieth album. And he’s still (apparently) the right side of forty. Just seven tracks in all, but each one is exquisitely crafted and impeccably delivered. Track 5, Bubble, has the sort of heart-breaking melody not heard in the Scottish Highlands since Belle And Sebastian’s haunting I Fought In A War.

3. The Harrow And The Harvest – Gillian Welch

Welch and her partner, guitarist David Rawlings made their debut in 1996 with Revival, produced by T-Bone Burnett. But it was when she performed with Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris on the Burnett produced soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou that her career took off. And a year later in 2001 she and Rawlings followed that up by releasing  Time, The Revelator. This is their fifth album, and is probably their best. By some curious alchemy, the songs they produce succeed in sounding at once timeless yet powerfully contemporary. Delicate melodies cast in Appalachian granite, track 2, Dark Turn Of Mind is a worthy successor to Time’s impossibly mellifluous Dear Someone.

2. The Less You Know, The Better – DJ Shadow

Every time we greet something new with schoolgirl excitement, we have an irresistible urge to over-compensate by sneering at it ever after. Thus it is that after greeting DJ Shadow’s 1996 debut Entroducing… with unbridled enthusiasm, everyone’s gone out of their way to ignore the three he’s made subsequently. As I wrote in my earlier review here of this his fourth album, one day, a lot of people will one day feel very foolish for having missed this first time around.

1. Father, Son, Holy Ghost – Girls

Compiling these end of year lists is invariably a process of reluctant elimination. So that by the time you’ve narrowed it down to your best five albums, the five you end up with are all equally wonderful. Not so this year. This year’s best album was unusually easy to name. As I wrote in my earlier review here, the second album from Christopher Owens’ band Girls is a serious album. Monumental yet intimate, and ranging musically across three or four decades, it’s an album that’ll be celebrated and returned to for decades. Enjoy.

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“Crazy Clown Time” – David Lynch + “Bad As Me” – Tom Waits

For those who regard him as the most important living artist working in any medium, and I count myself among their number, the first full length album released by David Lynch was always going to be something of a slight disappointment. The expectations it created were never likely to be realised.

Nobody, with the possible exception of Robert Altman, has understood quite so clearly the palpable importance of sound in film. So the music employed by Lynch has always been fundamental to the mood and menace that his films evoke.

Lynch wrote the lyrics for his long-time musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti when they teamed up for the monumental and still ground-breaking Twin Peaks, and the all too ethereal Julee Cruise added the gloss to the lush soundtrack they together produced. Then in 2010, he teamed up with producer supremo Danger Mouse and the ill-fated Sparklehorse to produce the melancholy Dark Night Of The Soul (reviewed earlier here).

So the eventual release of an album proper oughtn’t really to have been too terribly surprising, and nor should the way it sounds be. Moody blues, at the RnB end of the spectrum, spiked with menacing guitar riffs and laced with the occasional female vocal line, with Lynch’s own vocals buried in a sea of vocoder synths.

If you’re looking for a definitive album experience, then this isn’t it. But if you want to luxuriate in the kind of mood his films evoke, then enjoy. It’s the kind of album you might only stick on every six months or so, but it’s one that you’ll continue returning to for years to come.

Strangely, that’s not something that can be said for the latest Tom Waits album. Which is odd, because superficially, it’s delightful. It’s basically a greatest hits album made up of all new material. What could be more satisfying than that?

You get bits of the guttergravel romanticism of Blue Valentine, industrial, N’Orlins RnB à la Rain Dogs, the coiffured avant-garde of the underrated Pale Rider, plus the mandatory novelty act of the title track. It’s hardly Waits’ fault if all the innovations and freshness that were once so exciting have now become the norm. And the first couple of listens will bring a smile to the most curmudgeonly of faces.

And yet. You just know, that after that fourth or fifth listen, you’re never going to put it on again.

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7 Best TV Programmes for Christmas 2011.

1. Brian Cox’s Night With The Stars – BBC2 9pm, Sun 18th.

With his recent book on Quantum Physics making it abundantly clear that the poster boy of popular science is first and foremost a serious scientist, this one hour special is a wonderful opportunity for him to open up that dizzyingly complex area to the general public.

Anyone lucky enough to have seen either his Wonders of The Solar System, or the subsequent Wonders of The Universe (see below) will know that this the one man capable of making the Quantum universe genuinely exciting and ever so slightly less opaque.

2. The Conformist – Channel4 230am, Monday/Tuesday 19/20th.

A rare chance to see (or at least to record) Bertolucci’s seminal film from 1970. Ostensibly the story of a man who just wants to fit in, and who therefore joins the Italian Fascists in the 1930s, the ordinariness of his wishes are continually undercut by the film’s richly stylised and self-consciously Brechtian portrayal of the world he inhabits.

Hugely influential, the film’s cinematographer Vittorio Storaro was promptly poached by Francis Ford Coppola, for whom he went on to shoot The Godfathers I and II, Apocalypse Now and One From The Heart. Forget the fact that Bertolucci went on to prove himself quite the most over-rated film maker of his generation. Sit back and luxuriate in this opulent style fest.

3. The Art of The Night – BBC4 9pm, Wed 21st.

Waldemar Januszcak, the brilliant art critic for the Sunday Times, has been producing exemplary programmes on art and artists for over 15 years now. Most famously, he and John Richardson produced the peerless Picasso: Magic, Sex and Death, and most recently with The Impressionists (reviewed earlier here). So this one hour special on Rembrandt, Velázquez, Van Gogh and co. is not to be missed.

4. Other Voices NYC – RTE2 805pm, Christmas Day.

The only outlet for alternative music anywhere on Irish television, this (presumably temporary) move from Dingle to New York should play into the show’s strengths, by further highlighting the communal roots that Irish and American music mine and share.

5. The Johnny Cash Christmas Show – BBC4 950pm, Christmas Day.

Johnny Cash joined by Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, The Everly Brothers and of course the Carter family for a 1970 Christmas special. Enough said.

6. For One Night Only – The Dubliners – RTE1 1030pm, Christmas Day.

The 50th anniversary of their coming together, and a celebration of the release of the original line-up’s first three albums. A rare treat.

7. Wonders Of The Universe – BBC4 7pm nightly. Mon 26th-Thu29th.

For anyone who missed it first time around, here’s another chance to see Professor Brian Cox’s pleasingly dense overview of what we now know about the universe, and how we now know it. And don’t be put off by the somewhat ponderous first half hour. From then on in, it’s gloriously detailed and happily science heavy (reviewed earlier here).

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“Da Vinci – The Lost Treasure” – BBC

Every now and then, viewers write into the BBC to complain that the only thing Fiona Bruce seems to be good for is striding in and out of shot with those elegant, never-ending legs of hers. They ought of course to be castigating her employers for not making better use of her, instead of laying the blame at the woman herself.

Just what they’re missing by asking her to act as little more than window dressing on the Antiques Roadshow was revealed by the wonderful programme she produced on Leonardo for BBC1. It was made with two ends in mind. First, as an introduction to the newly discovered Salvator Mundi, which was recently revealed as one of Leonardo’s lost masterpieces. And second, as a celebration of the National Gallery’s mouth-watering exhibition of Leonardo’s principle paintings.

Given that the incurably curious Florentine conducted detailed studies of pretty much just about everything, and succeeded therefore in completing only a handful of paintings, the discovery of the Salvator Mundi really was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events. And a painting that was sold for just £45 in 1956 is today valued at in excess of £120 million.

Happily, this coincides with an exhibition of his work that the National Gallery will be putting on between now and February next in London, and which will now include the newly authenticated Leonardo. Almost as excitingly, the exhibition will also provide an opportunity to scrutinize a rarely seen exact replica of The Last Supper that Leonardo so disastrously experimented with, and which began to deteriorate almost from the moment he finished it.

Interestingly, no reference was made by Bruce to the fascinating article in the New Yorker on the laborious and thorny authentication process that the Salvator Mundi underwent (here). David Grann began his typically expansive piece as a fairly standard overview of how a lost masterpiece becomes authenticated. But halfway through, it suddenly morphed into an exposé on Peter Paul Biro, a Hungarian émigré based in Montreal who claimed, enterprisingly, to have pioneered a method of authenticating artworks by revealing hidden fingerprints using his own microscopic photography. Coincidently, the article suggested, he had more than a passing acquaintance with many of the works he successfully “authenticated”.

That I suppose would have been a different programme. As it was, Bruce used the compact hour to confidently and concisely present a crisp overview of Leonardo’s work and life, and to offer up a mouth-watering preview of the National Gallery’s exhibition. The sight of her serenely and authoritatively chatting away in French and Italian to academics in Paris and Florence ought to have been enough to silence her many doubters. Needless to say, it did nothing of the sort, and they all complained in their droves about it.

This programme did exactly what it should have done. It made the exhibition unmissable. And the National Gallery is to be congratulated for embracing an exhibit other institutions might have shied away from.

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“Brave New World with Stephen Hawking” – Channel 4

It’s always a little conflicting whenever you see the name Stephen Hawking in a programme title. On the one hand, it’s wonderful to see a man who clearly presents something of a challenge to the medium of television being afforded the sort of attention he unquestionably deserves.

On the other, it’s hard to suppress the sense that the channel involved is just lazily cashing in on his renown. Happily, both of the most recent examples were made by people as interested in our understanding of the world as he is.

Into The Universe with Stephen Hawking (or Stephen Hawking’s Universe as it was called in Britain) was shown on the Discovery Channel and, despite its occasional brashness, was a genuine attempt at intelligently sculpting a programme around his core interests; the nature of the universe, and our place in it. And now, though very different in its scope, Channel 4’s Brave New World with Stephen Hawking looks at the many very practical discoveries that emerge from the explorations conducted by people like him.

Essentially, it’s an up-market (and alas condensed) version of Tomorrow’s World, the BBC series that used to gaze into the future with Blue Peter awe and child-like wonder. Sensibly, they’ve enlisted the services of five or six of our most respected popular scientists, including David Attenborough, Robert Winston, Jim Al-Khalili, and Richard Dawkins.

Scientists who are popular not because they in any way play down the complexities of their respective fields, but because they manage to communicate the nature of those complexities so accessibly. And the most iconic of all our popular scientists is Hawking (though quite how accessible A Brief History Of Time actually is, is very much open to debate).

There are just five episodes, each covering four or five different items and each segment is presented by the expert appropriate to the given field. Conceptually, they begin with an apparently arcane corner of the scientific landscape, before illustrating how incredibly useful that particular area of enquiry proved to be, by showing us one of the wholly practical inventions that grew out of it. As with all the best television, the examples they chose all needed to be seen to be fully appreciated, and often indeed to be believed.

The driverless car, for instance, that Google has developed is all very well. But you really need to witness the extraordinary way that it handles corners, at speed, to appreciate just how staggeringly fast the processing power in the computers that it relies on are. Similarly, you need to see what it means to paraplegics to be able to step into what amounts to a bionic suit that enables them to walk, to appreciate what this could mean to them.

And you need to watch physicist Kathy Sykes, as she travels down for more than two kilometres into the bowels of the Earth to visit the SNO laboratory in Ontario Canada, where they study the precise nature of Neutrinos, to appreciate what was involved in constructing a laboratory there. Our increased understanding of the nuclear fusion that powers our Sun has had, and will continue to have innumerable practical uses.

The programme acts as a wonderful celebration of all the practical things that complex areas of science can produce. And crucially, it treats the viewer as an intelligent equal. Hopefully, Channel 4 will have the good sense to commission a second series. And when they do, they’ll allow the programme makers apply the same rigour that they did to the first series.

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