Archives for June 2011

Through The Wormhole” with Morgan Freeman – Discovery Channel

The bar­ri­er that all pop­u­lar sci­ence pro­grammes have to sur­mount is that so many of our recent dis­cov­er­ies have come through the avenues opened up by Spe­cial and Gen­er­al Rel­a­tiv­i­ty and Quan­tum mechan­ics. And they are both so unfath­omably com­plex that it’s incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to talk about either of them to the likes of you and I. Either you sac­ri­fice the sci­ence for the sake of mak­ing your pro­gramme acces­si­ble, or you alien­ate your view­ers by own­ing up to quite how insane­ly counter-intu­itive the quan­tum uni­verse is in the age of Rel­a­tiv­i­ty. Inevitably, pro­grammes tend to err on the side of pop­u­lar at the expense of sci­ence. They tend in oth­er words to be more BBC1 (and 3) than BBC2 (and 4).

Recent­ly though we’ve seen a num­ber of pro­grammes that man­age to redress that bal­ance, explor­ing the cut­ting edge of sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery, but doing so in a way that the non-sci­en­tist can (just about) com­fort­ably fol­low. Bri­an Cox’s pro­grammes on the Won­ders of the Solar Sys­tem and then the Uni­verse (see below), the His­to­ry Channel’s The Uni­verse, and now this, Through The Worm­hole with Mor­gan Free­man. The way that he’s done it is, basi­cal­ly, by mak­ing a pro­gramme that he’s designed specif­i­cal­ly for him.

Free­man plays the host, steer­ing us through the day’s top­ic which range from black holes and time trav­el, to the ori­gins of life and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of intel­li­gent life on oth­er plan­ets. But unlike so many of the fig­ure­heads who are tacked on to front pro­grammes like these, Free­man is as gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in the top­ic being explored as we are. Like us, he too is curi­ous about what we now know when we look up into the night skies, and what it can tell us about who we are and where we came from. But he too has nev­er got around to for­mal­ly study­ing it. So when he was asked to get involved in a series about space and the cos­mos, he clear­ly saw it as a fan­tas­tic oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore all those things he was inter­est­ed in a bit more sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly (or alter­na­tive­ly, he’s an even bet­ter actor than I gave him cred­it for).

The jour­ney he takes us on in the course of the (so far two) series is as much his as it is ours. And the rea­son it works so won­der­ful­ly well is that he and it assume that we are as intel­li­gent as he is, but no more so. So that whilst it nev­er shies away from M (or string) the­o­ry, Rel­a­tiv­i­ty and the quan­tum uni­verse, he’ll remind us every now and then that he’s as baf­fled and befud­dled by all these appar­ent­ly insane the­o­ries as we are. After all, as Nils Bohr, one of the great 20th cen­tu­ry physi­cists put it:

Those who are not shocked when they first come across quan­tum mechan­ics can­not pos­si­bly have under­stood it.”

Apart from the mer­ci­ful­ly brief flash­backs relat­ing to so say child­hood mem­o­ries that each episode feels oblig­ed to begin with, it’s a won­der­ful­ly engag­ing, sci­ence-heavy series that man­ages to be both acces­si­ble and stim­u­lat­ing. And the fact that it so suc­cess­ful­ly bal­ances the dic­tates of edu­cat­ing, inform­ing and enter­tain­ing (and in that order) is in no small mea­sure a reflec­tion on its genial host.

Series 1 and 2 can be seen on the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel now.

Tyler, The Creator — “Goblin” + Odd Future

Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All are a loose col­lec­tive of L.A. skaters who’ve band­ed togeth­er to pro­duce the first whiff of cordite in what had long felt like the dead and buried world of rap and hip hop.

They’ve been bub­bling under the sur­face for about a year or so, cre­at­ing an increas­ing online pres­ence with a vari­ety of posts, pages and releases.

But when their Earl video went viral last Sum­mer here, Odd Future burst up from the under­growth and into the light.

The Earl in ques­tion is Earl Sweat­shirt, one of Odd Future’s two de fac­to lead­ers, the oth­er being the impos­ing Tyler, The Cre­ator. Or at least he was. But just as it seemed that OFWGKTA were about to break out, Earl went missing.

The idea of sac­ri­fic­ing his youth for the chance of com­pet­ing with the lat­est Amer­i­can Idol win­ner for col­umn inch­es and air­time held lit­tle appeal for either him of his moth­er. So, as Kele­fa San­neh revealed in the New York­er here, he’s with­drawn to think care­ful­ly about what he wants to do with the rest of his clear­ly promis­ing life.

So Odd Future’s first seri­ous step into the main­stream has been left to Tyler, and it comes in the form of his sec­ond album prop­er, Gob­lin. If you’re unfa­mil­iar with Odd Future, there’s an excel­lent primer pro­vid­ed by the boys from Pravda’s Sean Fen­nessey here. In a word, they’re all about con­fronta­tion, and Gob­lin artic­u­lates this perfectly.

Which is fine. Grow­ing up is hard, and try­ing to find out who you are and what your place is, is often masked by aggres­sion and the façade of con­fi­dence. But the vio­lence here is so unremit­ting and the gra­tu­itous offence is so relent­less, that instead of being shocked by it you just become numb.

It’s a bit like watch­ing a film like Ichi The Killer. It strives so effort­ful­ly to offend that, from the very begin­ning, all you can see is the man pulling the strings. And very quick­ly, it gets real­ly, real­ly dull.

The con­fronta­tion doesn’t stop with the lyrics. Musi­cal­ly it’s every bit as self-con­scious­ly bol­shie. So there’s lit­tle enough that could be described as a melody, and cho­rus­es are con­spic­u­ous by their absence. At one point, the track Sand­witch­es fin­ish­es by berat­ing us with, “Lis­ten deep­er to the music before you put it in a box”. What music? Gob­lin is almost entire­ly word driven.

And yes, of course, that’s the whole point. They’ve made a hip hop album with prac­ti­cal­ly no music in it. Get it? The more loud­ly you fail to get their jokes, the fun­nier they find them and, obvi­ous­ly, you. But even­tu­al­ly, one of them is going to come across Brecht, and they’re going to realise that con­scious alien­ation of your audi­ence – dis­tan­ci­a­tion, as it came to be termed– is as old as the L.A. build­ings they spend so much time skat­ing around. And it’s as tedious to wit­ness now as it was all those years ago.

There’s a pal­pa­ble intel­li­gence beneath all the bile, but there’s so much pos­tur­ing going on, that all you can see is a mon­u­men­tal self-regard based on the peren­ni­al teenage con­vic­tion that they’re the cen­tre of every­one else’s uni­verse. The result is an album that’s a chore.

So unless they want to be remem­bered as one-trick ponies, how­ev­er fun­ny they find that trick, they need to start think­ing a lot less about them­selves, and a lit­tle bit more about the peo­ple with whom they are try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate. Art needs to be sig­nif­i­cant­ly more gen­er­ous than this. So far, the smartest guy in the Odd Future room is the one who’s left it.

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All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” – BBC

In 1974 Orson Welles made the appar­ent­ly con­ven­tion­al but qui­et­ly bril­liant F For Fake. He was con­vinced he’d invent­ed a new art form. On the face of it, it was a lan­guid doc­u­men­tary about a famous art forg­er, but in real­i­ty it was used by Welles to prod and probe our notions of art and arti­fice, of authen­tic­i­ty and men­dac­i­ty, and he used him­self and his life as the vehi­cle with which to do it. It was in oth­er words a metic­u­lous­ly con­struct­ed visu­al essay.

The essais, or “attempt” was pio­neered by Michel Mon­taigne in 16th cen­tu­ry France. It was, as Sarah Bakewell puts it in her superb biog­ra­phy, a way of “writ­ing about one­self in order to cre­ate a mir­ror in which oth­er peo­ple rec­og­nize their own human­i­ty”. Welles believed the medi­um of film was a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to give the per­son­al essay a whole new lease of life.

But to his dis­may, F For Fake fell com­plete­ly flat. And, although Hans-Jür­gen Syberberg’s mag­is­te­r­i­al Hitler, A Film From Ger­many was shown in cin­e­mas three years lat­er in 1977, all 7 hours and 17 min­utes of it, it wasn’t cin­e­ma that proved to be the nat­ur­al home for the filmed essay, but television.

The ‘illu­sion of trans­paren­cy’ that the any­thing but ‘arbi­trary quad­ran­gle’ that tele­vi­sion cre­ates is the per­fect space to pur­sue per­son­al pas­sions. It’s giv­en voice to every­one from Jacob Bronows­ki, Carl Sagan and Ken­neth Clark to Nick Broom­field, Michael Moore and Louis Ther­oux. But by far and away the most sophis­ti­cat­ed author of the filmed essay is Adam Cur­tis. It is he who has picked up where Welles left off.

His lat­est, All Watched Over By Machines Of Lov­ing Grace has just been shown on the BBC, and is divid­ed into three parts. The first is, arguably, its least con­vinc­ing. It’s debat­able just how influ­en­tial Ayn Rand’s “eco­nom­ics” were on Alan Greenspan, and the causal rela­tion­ship he sketch­es between Asia’s eco­nom­ic chaos and our own six or sev­en years lat­er is much more com­plex than he suggests.

The sec­ond instal­ment though is much more sat­is­fy­ing, and the pat­tern he weaves between some of the 20th century’s big ideas and the direc­tion that the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment head­ed off in is bril­liant­ly stitched together.

The third episode is even more impres­sive again, and is a sear­ing indict­ment of Belgium’s respon­si­bil­i­ty for the geno­cide and chaos they caused in Rwan­da in the lat­ter half of the 20th century.

But it is also a fas­ci­nat­ing por­trait of two of the most impor­tant recent evo­lu­tion­ary sci­en­tists, George Price and W.D. Hamil­ton, whose work paved the way for Richard Dawkins to pop­u­larise the idea of the Self­ish Gene. And it con­tains an intrigu­ing mini-por­trait of the Amer­i­can zool­o­gist Dian Fos­sey, marked­ly dif­fer­ent to the one you’ll see in Goril­las In The Mist.

What’s so exhil­a­rat­ing about Cur­tis, and in par­tic­u­lar this third episode, is that he some­how man­ages to meld all these ele­ments togeth­er alchem­i­cal­ly to pro­duce a coher­ent whole. So that what you get is three fas­ci­nat­ing mini biogra­phies, viewed in the light of the com­bustible way that sci­ence and pol­i­tics often seem to interact.

Caitlin Rose – “Own Side Now” + Laura Cantrell “Kitty Wells Dresses”

Caitlin Rose "Own Side Now".

Caitlin Rose “Own Side Now”.

Just as all who are con­sumed by dra­ma will one day grav­i­tate to Shake­speare, so too any­one who’s seri­ous about the craft of song writ­ing will even­tu­al­ly home in on coun­try music.

It was to Nashville that Dylan trav­elled when he put aside his child­ish things to record the mon­u­men­tal Blonde on Blonde. And when he went back east, it was not to the Vil­lage but to Wood­stock so that he and the Band could re-imag­ined their musi­cal heritage.

That lega­cy is evi­dent today every­where. From Emmy­lou Har­ris, T Bone Bur­nett and Daniel Lanois to the new roots Amer­i­cana of Fleet Fox­es, Bon Iver and Iron and Wine.

Bob Dylan "Nashville Skyline".

Bob Dylan “Nashville Skyline”.

What’s so refresh­ing about the 24 year old Caitlin Rose is that she some­how man­ages to side­step all of that, with­out in any way ignor­ing it. Like Gillian Welsh, she man­ages to sound both time­less and contemporary.

But her debut album Own Side Now harks back not so much to the 70s as it does to the 50s. So that whilst Welsh is drawn to exis­ten­tial intro­spec­tion, Rose is felled by that Nashville peren­ni­al, a bro­ken heart. What they both share is a flaw­less capac­i­ty to fuse lyrics of sear­ing hon­esty with painful­ly beau­ti­ful melodies.

In For The Rab­bits for instance, Rose entreats her depart­ed man to,

Fall back into my absent arms, Fall back into rou­tine dis­as­ter, Habit’s the only place that you call home.

Fall back into my des­per­ate arms, Fall back into this old dis­as­ter, ‘Cos it’s bet­ter than spend­ing all your nights alone.”

It’s as much an accu­sa­tion as it is a plea, and is aimed equal­ly at her­self as it is at him. But the des­per­a­tion evoked is lift­ed and sent sky­ward by the Heav­en­ly vocals, and the com­bi­na­tion of pain and plea­sure that results is intoxicating.

It’s a stun­ning piece of work, and is one of the best albums in the last decade. At least. And, whilst she’s not part of any actu­al move­ment, there clear­ly does seem to be some­thing afoot, as it’s ter­rain that’s tra­versed sim­i­lar­ly by Lau­ra Cantrell in the states and, in a very Eng­lish way, by Lau­ra Mar­ling in the UK.

Laura Cantrell "Kitty Welles' Dresses".

Lau­ra Cantrell “Kit­ty Welles’ Dresses”.

Cantrell emerged in 2000 when her just­ly laud­ed debut Not The Trem­blin Kind was described by none oth­er than John Peel as pos­si­bly his favourite album ever. Her lat­est, Kit­ty Wells Dress­es makes that 50s con­nec­tion explic­it. The title track that the album opens with is Cantrell’s, but the oth­er nine are cov­ers of songs record­ed by the now 93 year old Kit­ty Wells, as she blazed a trail for Tam­my Wynette, Loret­ta Lynn and Dol­ly Parton.

But even when cov­er­ing songs orig­i­nal­ly penned in the 50s, there’s some­thing in the way that Cantrell deliv­ers them that ren­ders them simul­ta­ne­ous­ly time­less and yet some­how un-mis­tak­en­ly contemporary.

It’s this fusion of tra­di­tion and of the mod­ern that make Caitlin Rose and Lau­ra Cantrell so musi­cal­ly rel­e­vant, and it’s their vis­cer­al hon­esty that make their songs so emo­tion­al­ly engaging.