Archives for February 2012

Julianna Barwick’s “The Magic Place”, David Lynch’s Soon To Be, Surely, Muse.

It’s hard to avoid using the E word when talking about Julianna Barwick. Her combination of ethereal, hypnotic vocals with carefully constructed layers of meticulously crafted sound conjures up inevitable if unfortunate visions of Enya.

A more useful comparison might be with Liz Fraser, and the sort of music that she and her fellow 4AD sirens were producing with the likes of the Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil and Dead Can Dance. But there’s none of that angst with Barwick.

The waves of balm that she wraps you up in evoke instead the blissed-up chill-out calm of last year’s Within And Without from Washed Out, reviewed here earlier, with the occasional echo of the quieter bits form Panda Bear’s Tomboy.

The Magic Place is all of the above, and yet somehow so much more. For despite all that bliss, and calm, and chilled out, yawn, serenity, it’s an album that manages to avoid ever sounding in any way monotonous.

Which is remarkable. There are no lyrics to speak of, in the conventional sense. It’s essentially a Minimalist album, where each piece takes a motif which is then worked on, methodically, almost mathematically, up to varying degrees of complication. And yet, there’s enough variation throughout and across each of the nine tracks to draw you in and hold you there. And rather than ever becoming boring, the more you listen to it the more beguiling become its charms.

Officially, it’s her second album, but to all extents and purposes The Magic Place is her first album proper and has been out for a year now. It got an impressed 8.5 from the boys from Pravda If you missed it first time around, treat yourself.

“The Lion’s Roar” From First Aid Kit, Sweden’s Answer To Emmylou And Alison Krauss.

first-aid-kit-lions-roarThe Lion’s Roar is the second album from Sweden’s First Aid Kit, comprising of sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, both of whom are barely into their 20s. After their debut The Big Black And The Blue from 2010, they naturally gravitated to America to record their sophomore effort, turning to Mike Mogis to produce it.

As well as being one of the three core members of Nebraska’s stellar Bright Eyes, where he serves as producer and multi-instrumentalist, Mogis has also worked on albums by the likes of Jenny Lewis and her band Rilo Kiley, and M Ward and his, She And Him.

While there are clear echoes of Jenny Lewis throughout The Lion’s Roar, it’s Nashville’s Caitlin Rose that most readily springs to mind, whose debut Own Side Now I reviewed here earlier.

As with Rose, there’s a world weariness to the songs here that somehow manages to be credible, not withstanding the unlikelihood that either of the manifestly jejune siblings could ever have gravitated beyond mere mischief in their brief lives. And if the songs here sound ever so slightly less lived-in that those on Own Side Now, that can probably be put down to the added difficulty of having to pen them in a foreign language.

What’s so beguiling about this album, as with Rose’s, is the alchemical marriage of a timeless musical tradition, with a vocal delivery that rings of unblemished innocence and, there’s no other word for it, purity. This potent combination is then deployed to lament a prematurely crushed spirit and a permanently broken heart. It’s a heady mix.

The boys from Pravda gave it an impressed 7.6

And the perceptive review there remarked with quiet surprise, that there aren’t too many girls who would try referencing Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons as the basis for a chat up line, as they do here on the second track, Emmylou. It’s not so much that there aren’t too many who’d get away with it. There aren’t too many who would try it, full stop. But they do, and it’s bewitching.

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“Religion For Atheists”, The Terribly, Alas, English Book By Alain de Botton.

For many years, scholars puzzled over what appeared to be the outline of a hideous figure, cowering in the depths of the ninth cycle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Who exactly was that frozen forever in the bowels of the Earth, more lowly even than Brutus, Judas, and even Satan himself?

Of course we now know that what we find there is a vegetarian, caught forever in the act of eating a veggie burger. Why would a vegetarian want to eat a burger?

Surely the last thing a vegetarian would ever want would to sink their teeth into would be something that embodies everything they’ve so proudly rejected? And yet there they are, on every vegetarian menu in the Western world. So we shouldn’t I suppose be too surprised about the latest offering from Alain de Botton, Religion For Atheists which is based on a similarly non-sensical idea. But that doesn’t make it any less lamentable.

Though Swiss by birth, there’s something terribly English about his new book. Religion For Atheists reeks of the same spirit that moves Anglican vicars to so needlessly explain and rationalize the parables in the gospels and the stories in the bible.

We’re not meant to be able to rationally comprehend the mysteries in the bible, hence the name we use to describe them. Their truths are beyond mere human understanding. Ours, famously, is not to reason why. That’s why no one is ever punished for behaving badly or rewarded for behaving well in the Bible. The only thing you’re ever punished for in the Bible is for acting of your own volition.

The one thing that’s demanded of you throughout the Bible, and it’s repeated over and over again, is that you submit your will to the higher and unknowable will of God. That’s what Muhammad understood having absorbed the worlds of Judaism and Christianity, and why he summed up his message with the single word Islam; “submit”.

Your beliefs demand that you make a profound sacrifice. That sacrifice is that you abandon your mere human logic and reason, and submit your will to a higher and unknowable authority.

All you succeed in doing by trying to explain and rationalize the mysteries that underpin that authority is to hopelessly weaken the bonds that bind you and it together. Your beliefs are only as strong as the sacrifices they demand of you.

That’s why Anglicanism is constantly under threat from the twin pillars of Catholicism and Protestantism, and why in contrast to the former, Islam goes from strength to strength.

The sacrifice demanded of atheism, which, some argue, is just a particular strand of belief, is the foregoing of the institutional shelter and communal succour that organised religion so vitally offers.

In its efforts to restore to atheists precisely that which they’ve sacrificed, de Botton’s book demonstrates a failure to understand what belief is for and how it operates, either for atheists or believers. He’s trying to sacrifice sacrifice.

He seems like an affable sort of chap, and when he sticks to arcane corners of architecture, or laymen’s philosophy he can be an engaging if slightly over-eager guide. But his Religion For Atheists bears all the markings of a man with more money than sense, and one who has far too much – and yet not enough – time on his hands.

“Breaking Bad” – AMC.

The golden age of American television continues, and an august lineage that began with The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men continues apace with Breaking Bad. Series 4 of the AMC show went out in the US last autumn, and the fifth and final season is due to be aired there later on this year. But it’s yet to surface on terrestrial television here, and many people on this side of the Atlantic will only be coming to it now.

All the best television depends on a series building a carefully constructed micro-world that you completely trust in because they know every square inch of it, and into which you’re invited for an hour once a week. What’s unusual about each of the above, is that they each focus on two completely disparate worlds, both of which you believe in and crucially, both of which are given equal weight when they inevitably come into collision.

The conflict created in The Sopranos arises when the mundane domesticity of family life comes into contact with the world of organized crime. But both worlds are given equal importance, and each of their characters are equally deserving of our sympathies.

Similarly The Wire has the good guys – the cops, the unions, a school and a newspaper – and the bad guys – the street gangs – but refuses to take sides. Instead, both sides are shown to be equally tainted by petty personal politics and conflicted loyalties which makes both sets of characters all the more fascinating.

Mad Men is a bit more complicated. The two worlds that come into conflict here are, on the one hand the black and white certainties of the late 1950s, which is what the show looks and sounds like, and on the other the pitch black and oh so contemporary cynicism of the show’s storylines and its characters, which is what the show feels like.

Breaking Bad takes this template and reduces it to its purest form. The two worlds here are the whiter than white collar world of an elementary school teacher and the bleached blond vanilla world that he and his family live in, and the dank and dark, grim and grimy realm of underworld drugs. When the school teacher (Bryan Cranston) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he decides to provide for his family by manufacturing crystal meth, and two worlds that ought never to have come into contact collide.

What’s so captivating about the show is that once that decision has been made, they treat everything he has to do, drug wise, as seriously as they do family wise. So for instance, when he has to dispose of a dead body, they really take you through, step by step, exactly what you’d have to do if you really were faced with having to get rid of a corpse.

Similarly, when he and his sidekick decide to offer their pristinely produced crystal meth (he is after all a Chemistry teacher) to one of the underworld’s main distributors, and suggest that perhaps he might consider using them instead of his usual producer to supply him with all his chemical needs, all Hell breaks loose, just as you’d have expected it to, should such an unlikely event have ever occurred in the real world.

All the advance reports on Breaking Bad were worryingly reverential. For once, they were entirely justified.