Archives for December 2011

5 Best Albums of 2011.

5. Let Eng­land ShakePJ 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 Bet­terDJ 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.

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.

7 Best TV Programmes for Christmas 2011.

1. Bri­an Cox’s Night With The StarsBBC2 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 NightBBC4 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 NYCRTE2 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 ShowBBC4 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 Dublin­ersRTE1 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 Uni­verseBBC4 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).

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.

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.