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 (–09-12#folio=086), 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.