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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