Archives for May 2013

New Album from Vampire Weekend Sizzles.

Vampire Weekend's latest Modern Vampires of the City.

Vampire Weekend’s latest Modern Vampires of the City.

We’ve been hearing about how impressed we ought to be with Vampire Weekend for a few years now. So it’s about time one their albums lived up to all that noise. Happily, this is the one that does.

Their first two efforts were distinctly underwhelming, and were far too readily dismissed as overpriced MOR. Their third, Modern Vampires of the City is a far more substantial affair.

Though if you were hoping to dismiss them as yet another hopelessly pretentious combo of studiedly casual pomo musos from you know where, then you’ll be gratified to learn that this is apparently the third and final installment of a trilogy, a triptych if you will. And yes I know, only the pretentious use the word “pretentious”.

On the always excellent All Songs Considered podcast, which I reviewed earlier here, the genial host suggested in an extended interview with them that this was a considerably darker collection of songs. Which is a little misleading. Vampire Weekend are to melancholia what Michael Haneke is to levity and joy.

And yet, this is an undeniably weightier work. Without ever beating you over the head with it, the figure of Time lingers implacably throughout, lurking in the shadows. Many of Ezra Keonig’s consistently impressive lyrics ponder the inevitability of death and decay in a way that’s only possible when you’re in your 20s and none of that sort of thing has any real relevance.

However impressive it is lyrically, it’s even more expansively intelligent and voraciously eclectic musically speaking. Indeed, if anything, they manage to so successfully meld the many, many musical influences that it’s sometimes hard to pick them apart. As the rapt review from the boys from Pitchfork said, where it got an august 9.3 , the chorus to track 3 revolves around a sample of a sample of a sample.

The mandatory All Songs Considered podcast.

The mandatory All Songs Considered podcast.

Nonetheless, the songs soar thanks to a combination of those lyrics and the band’s ability to conjure up a string of infectious melodies. The best of which combine on that track 3 “Step”, where Koenig muses:

Wisdom’s a gift but you’d trade it for youth,

Age is an honour – it’s still not the truth.

You can see, hear and read the song on Vampire Weekend’s official lyrics video here.

Few lyrics can stand up to that kind of scrutiny. Most would be rendered ridiculous and even embarrassing. Far from being the exception on the album, “Steps” is very much the rule. And Modern Vampires of the City is sure to resurface on many people’s Best Of end of year lists.

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Jack Nicholson’s Regal Purple Patch and “The King Of Marvin Gardens”.

Jack Nicholson with Bruce Dern

Jack Nicholson with Bruce Dern

You can judge a man by the company he keeps. And nothing defines an actor quite as distinctly as the roles he choses and the directors he decides to work with.

In the eight years between 1969 and ’76 Jack Nicholson made fifteen films, nine of which make for a truly remarkable roll call. And even the six among them that don’t quite work reveal an exceptional if restless intelligence.

He began in 1969, with the seminal and still surprisingly watchable Easy Rider. And finished up in 1976 with The Missouri Breaks, where he plays a conventional, down to earth cowboy to his great friend Marlon Brando’s lawless maverick.

Brando was the only actor who possessed an even greater talent, and whose spirit was even less securely moored. It’s hardly surprising that the pair should have gravitated toward one another.

In between, he played the cocky misogynist in Carnal Knowledge for Mike Nichols in ’71. The salt of the earth sailor in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail in ’73. The down at heel private investigator, trying to stay afloat in a sea of corruption in Polanski’s peerless Chinatown in ’74. The introspective existentialist in Antonioni’s The Passenger in ’75. And the archetypal non—conformist in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, also in ’75.

Jack Nicholson with Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.

Jack Nicholson with Faye Dunaway in Chinatown.

And amongst all of which, he made two films with Bob Rafelson. The more famous of which was Five Easy Pieces in 1970, where he plays a man who is in many ways a combination of all of the above. A brilliant pianist who turns his back on his bourgeois upbringing to take to the road and head west, in the vain hope of giving his life direction and meaning.

The following year he paired up with Rafelson again, in The King Of Marvin Gardens. This time he plays an intellectual whose only outlet are the weekly broadcasts he makes on night-time radio to his handful of faithful listeners.

Jack Nicholson with Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks.

Jack Nicholson with Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks.

But he’s lured east to Atlanta by his brother, played by Bruce Dern, in pursuit of the American dream. But that, as everybody knows, lies west. And all he finds instead is a rain-trodden, out of season, seaside purgatory. And from there, the only way is down.

All of the above are outstanding films in their own right. Each and every one of them, and they all merit repeated viewings. And those nine performances of his exhibit a staggering range, remarkable depth and an incredible determination to work with the most exciting and challenging people he could find. More than anything else, it shows an unrivalled willingness to explore the Greek maxim inscribed above the ancient temple at Delphi;

Know thyself.

The King Of Marvin Gardens is on at the end of May in the IFI in Dublin. And, if there’s any justice in the world, at a cinema near you.

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Top 5 Reasons Not To Bother Seeing “The Great Gatsby”.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

5. Because it’s a Baz Luhrmann film. And Luhrmann doesn’t make films, he makes music videos. And they have a language all of their own.

With just three or four minutes to get your story across, you need to paint your characters in big bold primary colours and in oversized emotions. And everything has to be in short hand and reduced to its bare minimum, so that all of the story points can be understood, immediately. No shot ever lingers for more than a second and a half before it’s ruthless- and restlessly cut, and the next is busily inserted.

It’s breathless and, occasionally, exhilarating. But having to watch 90 minutes – or more – of all that is like being asked to read a novel in text speak. It gets wearying, very, very quickly.

4. Because, as the old Hollywood adage goes, the best books make the worst films and vice versa. And Gatsby, somewhat surprisingly, hasn’t aged a day. It’s majestic.

3. Because, and not withstanding the above, the 1974 version is actually pretty good. Penned by Francis Ford Coppola, it’s a tad reverential and tiptoes tentatively around its source. But what saves it is its casting. Robert Redford is perfect.

Everything that makes him so suspect as a performer renders him ideal for Fitzgerald’s nebulous, opaque anti-hero. And all of the conflicting emotions you experience when watching him are transferred on to the figure of Gatsby.

Robert Redford as Gatsby

Robert Redford as Gatsby

Redford is porn personified. You know that it’s all show, that there’s nothing there, there. Beneath the surface, or beyond that facade. That whenever anyone tries that hard to make it look natural, all you ever notice is all of that effort. And that there’s something faintly ridiculous about anyone that fixated with and happy about how they look.

And yet, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Which means, obviously, that you’re every bit as shallow as he is.

Until eventually, in a vain effort to justify your attraction, you find yourself asking, what if? What if there’s nothing wrong with mere surface? What if that’s all there is?

All of which of course is exactly what the novel is about.

2. Because it’s in 3D. Which is so five minutes ago dot com.

1. One word; Australia.

One more reason? Very well, here’s the trailer.

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Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize Winning Book “The Swerve” a Joy.


The Swerve

The title of  Stephen Greenblatt’s latest book The Swerve, which won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2012, is a reference to what is arguably the single most extraordinary idea human beings have every had.

It charts the life of Poggio, a 15th century book hunter who chanced upon the only surviving copy of Lucretius’ justly famed poem De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature Of Things.

Aside from being a magnificent poem in its own right, it is also the most complete description we have of the philosophy of Epicurus, who Lucretius was a devout follower of.

Epicurus was a 4th century B.C Greek philosopher, who became increasingly convinced that we fail to live our lives to their fullest because we’re paralysed by our fear of death. Or more precisely, of what happens to us after. So he wrote, famously:

Where we are, death is not, Where death is, we are not.

The soul, he declared, is as mortal as the body. And whatever Gods there are would hardly be bothered one way or the other with what we mere mortals got up to here on Earth. He’d been able to arrive at these ideas because he himself had been a follower of the 5th century Athenian Democritus.

Plato and Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle

If you cut bread up into smaller and smaller pieces, the Greeks had wondered, what happens? Can you chop it up indefinitely, into smaller and smaller bits of bread? Or is there a basic stuff, that can be chopped up no further?

It was from this that Democritus formulated his extraordinary idea; his atomic theory.

Not only is everything made up of atomic matter – atom is just Greek for indivisible. But absolutely everything in the universe is made up of the same basic atomic matter. Trees, people, the planets, sand, everything was and is made up of the same  stuff.

By convention hot, by convention cold. In reality, atoms and the void.

How on Earth do you look around you and logically conclude that everything in the universe is made up of the same, invisibly small but identically indivisible stuff?! Before microscopes or telescopes, and with nothing more than your mind and a few equally curious contemporaries to bounce ideas off of?

It took science over two thousand years to catch up with this idea. And it’s hardly Democritus’ fault if John Dalton then used the term “atom” in the 19th century to describe the wrong stuff.

Atoms can be divided. They have at their centre a nucleus, and that can be divided into protons and neutrons. And they in turn can be divided up into the quarks that form them. So we should have saved “atom” up and used it for what we now call “quarks”.

It’s Democritus’ atomic theory that banishes superstition from our lives by insisting that everything, even our souls, are material, and made up of the same, basic stuff.

But it also does something else. It describes a mechanistic universe, determined by universal laws. And a deterministic universe does not allow for free will. This troubled Epicurus hugely. And so he came up with a slight modification; the swerve.

Will In The World

Will In The World

Atoms do not come together because of the laws of gravity and motion, he said. Predictably in other words. They swerve. So matter is produced randomly. And it’s this that allows for free will.

The Swerve is Greenblatt’s follow up to his magisterial book on Shakespeare Will In The World. Which is not merely the best book on Shakespeare, but the only one you’ll ever need to read. And this is equally good.

It describes how the Middle Ages was transformed into the Renaissance. And it does so by giving us a window on 1st century B.C Rome – Lucretius was a contemporary of Cicero and Catullus, and was admired by Virgil and Ovid. And on 5th and 4th century B.C. Athens. Which is of course where the renaissance came from. And it manages to be effortlessly erudite and gloriously readable. Read it.

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Iron & Wine’s Sumptuous New Album “Ghost On Ghost”.

Ghost On GhostIt looked as if Iron & Wine was part of that vogue for new roots Americana that was all the rage about 4 or 5 years ago. Musicians seemed to be turning away from digitally mastered layers of processed synths and returning instead to original instruments acoustically recorded in lofi.

Gillian Welch and Allison Krauss sang on O Brother Where Art Thou. And bands like Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and Iron & Wine enjoyed unexpected popular acclaim, which I wrote about earlier here.

Inevitably the hoi polloi caught on, and the result was alas Mumford and Sons.

In many ways though Iron & Wine, aka Sam Beam, has been moving in the opposite direction all along. He might have begun in the hushed, paired down, sparse acoustic mode beloved of many a bedroom. But his soundscape has been expanding ever since.

His third album, The Shepherd’s Dog from 2007, which seemed at the time to be quintessentially lofi, was followed by Kiss Each Other Clean in 2011, and now this, Ghost On Ghost.

With each new album the sound gets bigger, the arrangements more complex and his plaintive vocals are cushioned ever more comfortably in a bed of reverb and overdub.

Gram-ParsonIn other words, he’s pursuing the same course charted by Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers in the late 60s and early 70s. And by merging the rich harmonies of the Beach Boys with the graft and craft of The Band, he gives his angst an unexpected glean.

“Desert Babbler”, track 2 on this latest album, sounds like it could have been the B side on an unreleased Beach Boys Christmas single. And track 3, “Joy” could just as easily have been its A side. You can see the video for it here.

Whilst the penultimate track, “Lovers’ Revolution” feels like something that might have turned up on Astral Weeks if somebody else had been asked to pick up the mike – you can hear it here. Before “Baby Center Stage” brings the album to a serene close by returning us to the realm of Fleetwood Mac, sunshine and California.

Pristine pop cased in a rich musical heritage.

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