Archives for September 2011

“The Hour” V “Mad Men” via “The New Yorker”

The New Yorker is peerless, providing a home and sustenance for the finest writers in the English language. And its stable of regular critics are every bit as impressive as the rest of the writers that go to make up its rostrum. Whether it’s Anthony Lane and Alex Ross on film and music, or Judith Thurman and Nancy Franklin on couture and television, their pronouncements are flawless and delivered with impeccable aplomb. So it might have been disappointing to read the latter on the BBC’s The Hour. But it wasn’t.

That’s because anyone who has ever witnessed an American when confronted with a British accent will know how disarmingly impressed they are by it. It’s like watching a magpie being dazzled by a shiny object. They’re quite dumbfounded. So seeing the ordinarily foot-perfect Franklin reduced to a gushing schoolgirl when confronted by this tosh was, alas, par for the course.

In her review (, she refers to the inevitable comparisons that have been made between The Hour and Mad Men, and to the fact that so many of us on this side of the Atlantic found the former so palpable wanting. It wasn’t that they got so many things wrong in The Hour, rather it’s the fact that they somehow managed to get practically everything wrong. Every conceivable detail, every nuance, every look was so manifestly a reflection of when it was made, and not when it was set, that you literally didn’t know where to look.

The difference between that and Mad Men is nowhere better illustrated than in one of the earlier episodes from series 1 of the latter, when the newly arrived Peggy is being shown to her desk by the practically edible Joan ( Unveiling the brand new typewriter that Peggy can now use to work on, Joan says to her,

“Now try not to be overwhelmed by all this technology. It looks complicated, but the men who designed it made it simple enough for a woman to use.”

Peggy nods at her nervously and says, genuinely grateful,

“I sure hope so.”

The reason that the scene works so well is because both actresses play it completely straight. There are no asides or raised eyebrows. Peggy, the proto-feminist, and one of the show’s protagonists really is grateful. The two women are as much a part of the magnificently sexist late 1950s landscape as the men who sculpted it. It is because the world of Mad Men rings so completely true, that you believe wholeheartedly in the characters there and the stories that engulf them. So your emotional investment in them is unwavering.

In contrast, every move that the female protagonist makes in The Hour has attitude, and reeks of today. None of the encounters with her superiors at, of all places, the BBC demonstrate any of the deference and diffidence demanded by the epoch, the institution and indeed the British Empire. Could it be more anachronistic? Hence, you don’t believe a word of it.

Still, it is rather sweet to see the cultural Titan that is the New Yorker blindsided by such silly pap from across the pond.

Girls – “Father, Son, Holy Ghost”

Father, Son, Holy Ghost is the difficult second album from San Francisco’s Girls after their suitably lauded debut Album in 2009. And if anything, their influences are worn even more proudly here than they were first time around. The opening track, Honey Bunny, marries early Undertones with Paul Simon circa ’73, and the first four tracks on the album once again confirm Girls as the next in line to a tradition of heartfelt, sophisticated indie pop that traces its lineage to Big Star and The Replacements via Teenage Fanclub.

But as the third track, Die, progresses the more expansive soundscapes of Fleetwood Mac and Pink Floyd begin to emanate. And by the time we get to 5 and 6, My Ma and Vomit, the sound and feel of late Beatles has been blended with The Dark Side of The Moon and fed into Spiritualized to produce a sonic spectrum that spreads out in all directions at once.

What saves the whole thing from specious opulence though is the emotional depth and guileless, Lennonesque honesty that Christopher Owens provides. More than merely the lyricist and lead singer, Owens is the band’s creative dynamo, and it’s his delivery as much as it is his song writing that raises their music and sends it soaring into the heavens. You don’t need to know the details of his backstory to feel his pain, but few will be surprised after hearing this music to discover that his mother brought him up in the Children Of God cult, and that although both he and she escaped and survived, the price they paid was the death of his brother and her second son.

Had Girls been making music ten years ago, theirs would certainly have been the sound that Jonathon Caouette would have turned to for his similarly heartbreaking film Tarnation, from 2003. Both Owens and Caouette use emotional outpourings as a balm for the psychic wounds their delicate, androgynous, fragile torsos have been scarred with. In both cases, the results are devastating, at once hopelessly damaged yet improbably triumphant.

The more you listen to Father, Son, Holy Ghost the more comfortably it rests as a monumental edifice. The boys from Pravda gave it a suitably august 9.3 That feels about right. Give or take a percentage point or two.

Bombay Bicycle Club – “A Different Kind Of Fix”

Smothered with love and fawned over by both Channel 4 and the NME, and duly hailed as north London and then Britain’s next Big Thing, Bombay Bicycle Club have, surprisingly, turned out to be the real deal. After their debut album I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose in 09, and the follow-up Flaws a year later, A Different Kind Of Fix is their third album in as many years, and is a happy fusion of the two that came before.

The more upbeat elements of the former can be found in tracks like Take The Right One, Beggars and Leave It which have a grandiose, monumental sweep as if Arcade Fire had been covered by New Order in their early 90s guise.

Whilst Fracture and especially the ethereal, heady Still recall their second quieter album, as once again Nick Drake is channelled, only this time around his sound is fused and melded into an early 70s psychedelic soundscape. If their first two albums passed you by, jump on board.

Jay-Z and Kanye West – “Watch The Throne”

Fifteen years ago hip hop was everywhere. Having got bigger and bigger over the previous couple of decades, all of a sudden it became ubiquitous, so that numerous sub-categories had to be invented to describe its ever expanding horizons, and every single other kind of genre began to incorporate it in some shape or form.

You had the largerthanlife Dre, Tupac and Snoop Dog on the West coast, and The Notorious B.I.G., Nas and Jay-Z on the East. But you also had EL-P’s Def Jux, Wu-Tang Clan and the Beastie Boys going off in their different directions, De La Soul and Jurassic 5, and A Tribe Called Quest and Blackalicious taking it somewhere else again, and DJ Shadow and RJD2 going somewhere completely different again. Then there was Eminem, and 50 Cent, etc etc etc.

The whole thing came to a head with Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below from 2003. A monster critical and commercial hit, it seemed to take all the best bits of every conceivable musical genre and filter them all through the prism of hip hop. And then just as suddenly it was all over, and over night hip hop became irrelevant. And from what remained of the dust and detritus, a lone figure emerged; Kanye West.

Okay, so that’s a slight exaggeration. The Roots are still out there and last year’s How I Got Over proved that their already expansive musical palette had got even more adventurous. Whilst that year’s Cosmagramma, the third album proper from Flying Lotus showed that hip hop was still capable of producing a genuinely exciting, not to say impressively eclectic new talent. And The Ecstatic, Mos Def’s 2009 album, is a serious piece of work. But it’s hard not to form the impression that part of the demise of hip hop has been the absence of anybody big enough to stand up to the colossal talent that is Kanye.

The one man that does seem up to the task is Jay-Z, and after working closely together on Kanye’s imperious My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (see below) last year, they’ve joined forces to produce an album proper. A number of critics have complained about Watch The Throne’s triumphalism, misreading it as a celebration of the duo’s gargantuan success. Which is to completely miss the point. You can get a taster for where they were going to go on this album by listening to two of the more withering tracks on Twisted Fantasy, Monster and So Appalled, where everything they declaim is punctuated with the refrain, “I know, this shit is fuckin’ ridiculous.”

Watch The Throne is an album from two giants who can’t quite comprehend how it is that they have been given so privileged a view from up there in the clouds, and who are continually amazed at how lonely they are there. And yet no-one is going to decry more loudly than they are their right to demand it.

Whilst not quite as layered as Twisted Fantasy, Watch The Throne is bombastic, demanding, dynamic, supremely confident and constantly questioning and, like all the best music, impossible to pin down.

“Saturday Night With Miriam” – RTE

Genuinely ground-breaking television programmes are few and far between, but Saturday Night With Miriam which has just concluded its summer run was that rare thing; an important RTE production. What they’ve done is, to take each and every one of the worn and stale traits from those tired and dreary early 1980s talk shows, put them all together in the one show, and present it as if it were a real programme. It’s a brilliant way of fearlessly deconstructing and minutely examining contemporary Irish broadcasting, and is a searing indictment of the very channel which, to its credit, has had the courage to air it.

It’s as if Graham Norton and Chris Evans, or for that matter Conan and Letterman had never happened. But unlike say, Mrs Merton, Alan Partridge, or even The Day Today, O’Callaghan and her production team play the whole thing with a completely straight face. You get a seemingly endless stream of guests nobody has heard of, who produce a torrent of interminable and unfunny anecdotes, in the vain hope of manufacturing their own 15 minutes, and there’s not a raised eyebrow or exclamation mark in sight! So instead of an admittedly hilarious parody, what you get is an invaluable and insightful critique of the state of Irish television as it moves into the 21st century.

Imagine if something like this were a real programme, the show asks. Is this the sort of thing a public broadcaster ought to be offering up as the service it provides? Isn’t the whole point about public sector broadcasting, that it strive to find a balance between reflecting the country as it is, and exploring the boundaries of the medium it uses to do so in? If all you think about are the viewing figures, this is the sort of thing you’re going to end up with.

It’s commendably brave of RTE to allow this sort of criticism to exist on its schedule, but it’s vital that they do so, and that they heed the show’s dire warnings. And it’s admirably principled of O’Callaghan to feign sacrificing her credibility in this way, by so courageously opening up the debate about what exactly RTE is for. The guise she adopts here is the brilliantly drawn comic character she’s been using for her radio show, Miriam Meets. There she plays a wonderfully faux-mumsy interviewer so incontinent with empathy and emotion, that your only reaction is to reach for the nearest kitten, tear it limb from limb and gorge on its entrails.

Generously, she plays down the comic elements here so she can concentrate of presenting her searing, not to say selfless critique of public sector broadcasting, and the urgent need for us all to start thinking seriously about the kinds of programmes that RTE should be making. Because if we are not careful, as she so brilliantly suggests, this is the sort of thing we could very well end up with.