Monday, 31 August 2015

Pictures, Words and Moving Pictures

So, I'll start off with a bonus compilation tape. When I was doing my original 101 Songs blog, which was all about themed 10 song lists, I always wanted to to do 10 Songs about Art and Artists. but never thought there were enough, but in fact there are more than enough.

Here's a nice compilation, it's quite loose

The Jungle Line - Joni Mitchell
Pablo Picasso - The Modern Lovers
Mona Lisa - Nat King Cole
Interiors - Manic Street Preachers
Debaser - The Pixies
Vincent - Don McLean
Andy Warhol - David Bowie
Michelangelo - Emmylou Harris
Painting by Chagall - The Weepies
The Model - Belle and Sebastian

Viva La Vida - Coldplay
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds - The Beatles
The Art Teacher - Rufus Wainwright
Magritte - John Cale
Pictures of Matchstick Men - Status Quo
Picasso Baby - Jay-Z
When I Paint My Masterpiece - Bob Dylan
Painting People Blue - Gruff Rhys
Wings of Speed - Paul Weller
What Light - Wilco

Quite a lot of the greats of rock'n'roll have tried their hand, or more, at painting, including Joni Mitchell, Dylan, McCartney, Bowie, John Lydon etc. Whatever default contempt this is met by, and how many folk think they're being smart by suggesting they stick to their day job, I think it's fair enough and think it's interesting in and of itself, and have no problem with stuff being exhibited on the basis of name alone. The fact is, to someone like me, a selection of sketches from travels around the world by Bob Dylan ARE more interesting because they're by Bob Dylan. I've got no qualms about saying that's my approach to painting.

I've limited aesthetic sense, I'm not the kind of dude (or pseud) who spends hours staring at one painting and tries to say insightful things about colour and brushwork. I'm kidding no one.

Yet, I've really come to love visiting galleries. I'd get dragged round them as a child with my much more genuinely art-loving family (one notorious trip to the Whitechapel Gallery to be baffled by the works of someone called Ian McKeever sticks in the mind), I remember a fearsomely dull school trip to the National Portrait Gallery too (come on, there is a lot of dull in the Portrait Gallery) and I was discouragingly poor at art myself. [Mrs Holmes, a diminutive South African school art teacher who sneezed like a Latin alas - eheu!eheu! - broke my spirit when she first encountered my laboured attempts with quite the worst moment of teaching I ever encountered. "I can't believe you're James McGaughey's brother" in reference to my bro whose fine, grand paintings had pride of place on display all over the school. Though I commonly visualise schooldays as a load of mean young fuckers being relentlessly mean, I do remember someone (I sadly can't remember who) piping up in my defence with "he's good at other things" which was nice]. Anyway, since I became an adult, as I was saying, I love going to galleries.

Whichever city I'm in, I'll always schedule in as many galleries as I can. And, as  I say, I'm very much from the "tick off the famous name" school of art enjoyment. I've got decent, at least, at guessing what's by who - that's my own way to make it more fun.  I get my Kandinsky confused with my Malevich sometimes, my Renoir with my Degas, but I'm not too bad. I used to mainly like post-1850 stuff, but who couldn't delight in the likes of Durer and Bosch and all their lunacy.

I'm aware I sound like a boor. I'm playing up to it a little. In fact, I sound rather like the main character in the book I just read, 'Us' by David Nicholls. The 50-odd year old scientist who is a narrator provides a hilariously knowledgeable, enthusiastic but reductive and uncomprehending view of the art world and its history. That's me all over. Visual art is one of those things that's not my thing but I love it in my own way.

Anyway, I've mentioned books so let's switch media, shall we, since it's a jolly Sunday. OK, I'll start with a literary compilation. Not having made it yet, I imagine there'll be quite a few of the usual suspects. Let's see.

Wrapped Up in Books - Belle and Sebastian
Wuthering Heights - Kate Bush
Absolute Beginners - The Jam
Romeo and Juliet - Dire Straits
Desolation Row - Bob Dylan
Don't Stand So Close To Me - The Police

Killing an Arab - The Cure
Paperback Writer - The Beatles
Gurdjieff's Daughter - Laura Marling
Cemetery Gates - The Smith
White Rabbit - Jefferson Airplane
There She Goes My Beautiful World - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Bit weak, that list, bit obvious. There's lots of songs inspired by books, anyway ... all those lyric writers like to let us know they've read books.

As do I! So, yeah, I just read Us, it was good. He's a nice writer, very good at writing scenes, very funny, easy to read. I didn't buy the ending, it was both too gut-wrenching and too sentimental. Before that I read The Sound and the Fury, and before that The Girl on the Train, a recent bestseller (I read it on trains).

My ability to select books to read has recently gone awry, as I had previously been good at finding books acclaimed enough to make me seem clever but easy to read enough to be a pleasure. Of these last three, two are definitely not "literary" enough and the other, The Sound and the Fury, was as hard work, at times, as a book can be. Yes, rewarding, though. Yes, yes. Mmmhmm.

Hopefully, I've got my touch back with my next choice, as it's a recent Booker winner and, having just started it, seems very readable. Long, though. Might have to read a book about boxing or pop music first.

Anyway, Us was written by the chap who wrote Starter for Ten and his monster bestseller One Day, which I also succumbed to. So, let's switch media again for a little afterthought. One Day, such a popular bestseller, seemed made for a breakout British romcom-weepie Bridget Jones type smash, but the film failed pretty badly, almost certainly mainly because of the terrible casting of Anne Hathaway, who did one of the worst accents in the history of cinema and consequently ruined what would otherwise have been a nice film.

What makes a terrible accent? Let's be fair about this. It varies.  We all suddenly become experts in accents. People talking about dodgy accents in Gangs of New York, like we're suddenly all experts in how people spoke in 19th century New York. Or dodgy accents in Game of Thrones, like we're all suddenly experts in how people ought to speak in mythical kingdoms.

But Anne Hathaway had no leeway. She was playing a beloved character, already visualised and realised by millions of potential viewers, the character was from Britain not America, the character was from Yorkshire, not anywhere else in Britain. Gosh, while watching, I tried to give a bit of leeway that the character went to uni in Edinburgh then lived in London so would have a slightly odd accent, but not that one, Anne, not that one.

But all sorts of actual people do have funny accents, that should be remembered. We should try to give accents the benefit of the doubt, I reckon. Tom Wilkinson gets so much work in America, but he always sounds to me like he's the English guy "dewin my Amairric'n acc'nt", but he never ruins a film, clearly, otherwise he wouldn't keep getting the work. We can just remember that quite a lot of Americans, say those from New England, have that slightly anglo element to their accent, and let it be.

I watched the recent Far From the Madding Crowd recently, and they had a Belgian playing Farmer Oak - Matthias Schoenaerts, and that was kind of a weird choice because it's hard for Belgians to sound like they're from the West Country, and sometimes, despite his best efforts, you heard his European creeping through.

But, unlike with Hathaway, where it was clearly a terribly compromised casting decision and a bad one, Schoenaerts seemed really the right man for the role. Oak is a character of stillness, immutability, nobility, in touch with nature and the old world, and that's quite a tough thing to carry off, and that dude, Matthias Schoenaerts, he has it. So I told myself "maybe they did sound like that in this so-called Wessex in the 19th century" and I just about accepted it.

There aren't hard and fast rules for shitty accents. I didn't mind Dominic West's in The Wire but it irritated me him doing the self-same thing in The Affair. Ewan McGregor's American accent always seems rubbish to me but in Big Fish, he's playing Albert Finney as a young man, so, you know, the rules are slightly different.

Anyway, anyway, I need to find a way to get this back to artists. Erm, Bob Dylan ... I've been to see his art on display. I don't particularly care if he's accomplished or not. Some critics said he was quite accomplished, some said he wasn't. I thought he had some nice tales to tell, and I liked the way his paintings were displayed entirely without fuss in the Portrait Gallery. I like the fact that he's had an exhibition of wrought iron gates, that he's been a DJ, that he's written a book or two, I don't think people should stick to their day jobs. I don't think people shouldn't have a go at doing accents. As long as we reserve the right to be brutally unfair whenever the mood takes us, anything goes ...

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Games Games Games!

I said quite a while ago I'd write more about films, and I haven't, so here goes.

For me, it's harder to write confidently about film because I rarely watch a movie more than once (or occasionally twice), especially recent ones. So for all the fine films I've seen in the cinema lately, I'd feel a bit fraudulent saying more than a little.

So, let's go to some comfortable ground - a genre that may be called a guilty pleasure but isn't terribly guilty; the American coming-of-age/youngish adult romance/comedy/drama.

It's not the most critically revered, though it has significant span, from Grease to Brick. I'd say I'm a minor-league aficionado, and have seen a few more films starring the likes of Ryan Reynolds and Julia Stiles than most have.

I don't have particularly exacting standards and parameters - I remember being shocked by how much I enjoyed American Pie at the cinema, though usually I don't really go for the grosser/more laddish angle.

I've loved an awful lot of these films, whether they're darker indie dramas like The Squid and the Whale and Thumbsucker, or archetypal feelgood flicks like She's All That. I embrace their use of popular song of the day, find myself so often surprised at the wit of the dialogue I should no longer be surprised, root for the outcome and often find myself with a little lump in my throat.

I have a favourite - one that ticks all my boxes.

I was reminded of it by seeing publicity for the new film 'American Ultra' and its two stars being interviewed together. Ah, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, they seem to get on well, I thought ... oh yes, I remember.

I don't think I'll go see American Ultra - stoner and ultraviolent comedy aren't subgenres that always hit my happy spot, though if it's got a touch of Grosse Point Blank and gets decent reviews, maybe I will.

Anyway, Eisenberg and Stewart's previous encounter was in 'Adventureland', an underrated, underseen little marvel which is one of my favourite films in the world.

What's Adventureland? It's a theme park in late-80s Pennsylvania where students etc spend their summer earning a bit of cash. The sun occasionally shines, it's a bit grimy and depressing. I haven't actually seen much Kristen Stewart, just this and bits of the first Twilight film (Twilight is coming-of-age romance, a plus, vampire, a minus, blockbuster, also a minus) but the sadness and self-loathing behind the eyes makes her pretty compelling in this. Eisenberg I'm a huge fan of, Zombieland, The Social Network etc.

I first saw him in The Squid and the Whale, more a a family film than a teen film per se. I've been watching a lot of Noah Baumbach film's lately. They're all really good, but there is a sourness which can be a little off-putting.

Adventureland does not have that sourness. It's got the ring of truth, it's not glossy, but it's not sour. Greg Mottola is the director and it is, I believe, semi-autobiographical. There's a sweet nostalgia in the period detail. In Britain - maybe less so in the USA - the late 80s can be seen as a bit of a wasteland for music, but the soundtrack is one of the very best things about the film - the key band are The Replacements, those keepers of the flame for the real rock music.

I saw The Replacements a couple of months ago, at the end of their comeback tour, so quite probably their second last gig ever. I'd already been a fan before I watched Adventureland but the depth of my affection is certainly connected to the film. The film ends with the viewer satisfied, as there's a happy ending to the soundtrack of the band's most beautiful song 'Unsatisfied'. The otherwise awesome gig ended with this listener ever so slightly unsatisfied, as there was no 'Unsatisfied' to finish. It finished with 'Alex Chilton' their moderately famous song about what would have happened if Chilton's very unsuccessful but influential band Big Star were massively famous. Big Star also are on the Adventureland soundtrack.

I constantly wish for a world where Big Star, The Replacements and Adventureland have all been massively successful.

These teen films, they're easy to be moved by, to be sucked into empathising, but Adventureland is really more about the right kind of people than most. Geeky but not too geeky, normal and bright, well-read and poor, restless and hopeful.

And it's got Ryan fuckin Reynolds. I like Reynolds, the modern smartass king. Often he's the romantic hero, which kind of works as long as he's a bit of a dick with it, here he's just a bit of an ambiguous dick. It's a very strong supporting role, amongst any others, including Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader.

The film came out at the same time as (500) Days of Summer, a fair bit more feted for its "fresh twist on the romcom". I like that film too, I've seen them both more than once, and, again, great use of the pop music, but it's much more mannered, more artificial, more glossy. Also, not that "liking the characters" is always important for liking films, it does help somewhat with romantic films, and the central two in 500 Days of Summer are super-annoying where pretty much everyone in Adventureland is likeable.

The male star of 500 Days of Summer is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. There are three guys of roughly that age who've done roughly those parts - Eisenberg, Gordon-Levitt and Michael Cera. Cera (whatever will be will be), the oddest, most teen awkward, most straightforwardly comical, has seen his star fall a little inevitably. I'd be surprised if he's still getting main parts in five years time (not that i don't think he's pretty ace).

Eisenberg and Gordon-Levitt, it'll be interesting to see. Both are getting big parts in big films now, though physically Gordon-Levitt lends himself to more, I think, more action hero, more matinee idol, more capable of dumb. Eisenberg, I suspect, will always be at his best when stuttering, self-deprecating, wisecracking. We'll see.  They're both in their mid-30s now, anyhow. No more coming-of-age dramas, one hopes.

Anyway, have I told you enough about Adventureland? I've talked it up to people, some of whom have liked but not loved it, not quite getting why I put it on such a pedestal. It's just ... everything about it ... it's marginal gains ... I like every detail in it better than other films of its type, that's all.

I, like Levitt and Eisenberg, am at an age when I'm (or should be) outgrowing the genre a little, but I think I'll always have a place in my heart for Adventureland.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

There ain't half been some clever bastards

Sang one of those clever bastards, Ian Dury.

Is his brand of clever quite the clever I'm talking about though?

No one is disputing there are clever people in every genre of music on both sides of the Atlantic - Chris Martin is a very clever man, Madonna is a very clever woman. But you wouldn't say they make clever music. They don't want to. Well, I hope they don't, otherwise they're not as clever as I thought.

There's a certain strand of clever music by clever British bands, often labelled something like art rock or math rock - the cleverness, the archness is its defining feature. It's learned and erudite, it has angles and time signatures and all that jazz.

It doesn't necessarily steal my heart, maybe I'm not clever enough for it. My all-time favourite British bands, from the Beatles to Dexys and the Clash, the Jam, Belle and Sebastian, Super Furry Animals and the Manic Street Preachers, they're undoubtedly full of very clever people, but these are bands where you could say the passion and the soul and the warmth overrides the cleverness. None of these are art-rock bands, sometimes they're even decidedly dumb and all the better for it.

Even Blur, for all the cleverness, had their most universal moments with huge sounds, dumb riffs and rabble-rousing.
The Manics have come unstuck when they've tried to incorporate the cleverness into the actual music, the Furries have always been self-effacing and prepared to use musical cliche to great effect.

All together, like I say, in both American and British music, I tend to have the greatest devotion to very clever bands who are prepared to bear their souls in the music, and prepared to keep it terribly simple at times. Arch is only for me in small doses.

Maybe the key to this is what your favourite Radiohead albums are.

But here are a few British bands in the fine tradition, and plenty of good ones there are, who sound clever and are clever, who don't compromise, who don't necessarily aim to tug the heartstrings. It's not a perfect idea or any kind of long list, it's just a thought I had. I know there is often something about what they're doing musically that I haven't even touched on, because I can't.

Also, let me take this opportunity to remind myself how awesome British Sea Power are.

There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards

Outdoor Miner - Wire
Waving Flags - British Sea Power
Cassius - Foals
Schoolin' - Everything Everything
The Word Girl - Scritti Politti
Darts of Pleasure - Franz Ferdinand

Precious Plans - Field Music
Apply Some Pressure - Maximo Park
Cars and Girls - Prefab Sprout
Helicopter - Bloc Party
The Fun Powder Plot - Wild Beasts
Default - Django Django

You know, I'm going to keep it short. I think that's suitable.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Four more tapes

Here's a burst of smashing compilation tapes with long self-explanatory titles.

First one is called

If sports people liked cool music, wanted to be inspired but also had a sense of doubt, this is what they'd listen to ...

  • Olympian - Gene
  • Mr November - The National
  • Chin High - Roots Manuva
  • Lose Yourself - Eminem
  • Search and Destroy - Iggy Pop
  • Keep on Running - Spencer Davis Group
  • Faster - Manic Street Preachers
  • Steady Pace - Matthew E White

  • The Middle - Jimmy Eat World
  • So Alive - Ryan Adams
  • Get Ready - The Temptations
  • Can I Kick It - A Tribe Called Quest
  • Who Gon Stop Me - Kanye West ft Jay-Z
  • Cloudbusting - Kate Bush
  • Finish Line - Fanfarlo
  • Victory - The Walkmen

If you have siblings, and you can all sing, here is the proof that you should really form a band ...

  • God Only Knows - Beach Boys
  • All I Have to Do is Dream - Everly Brothers
  • Summer Breeze - The Isley Brothers
  • Forever Lost - The Magic Numbers
  • Hey Lover - Dawes
  • Emmylou - First Aid Kit
  • Teeth White - The Staves
  • Love You More - The Pierces

  • MMMBop - Hanson
  • I'll be There - The Jackson 5
  • Respect Yourself - The Staple Yourself
  • Thinking of You - Sister Sledge
  • Gan to the Kye - The Unthanks
  • Sunshine on Leith - The Proclaimers
  • Where Does the Good Go - Tegan and Sara
  • Schooldays - The McGarrigle Hour

Guitars everywhere but not a man jack amongst them! What Maenad frenzy is this!

  • Hey Darling - Sleater-Kinney
  • Our Lips are Sealed - The Go-Gos
  • Deceptacon - Le Tigre
  • Radio On - Ex Hex
  • Walk Like an Egyptian - The Bangles
  • Take Me Anywhere - Tegan and Sara
  • Cherry Bomb - The Runaways
  • Oh Bondage Up Yours! - X-Ray Spex

  • Typical Girls - The Slits
  • Woo Hoo - The 5,6,7,8s
  • The Wire - Haim
  • June Gloom - The Like
  • Husbands - Savages
  • Can't Find Entry - Those Dancing Days
  • Undertow - Warpaint
  • Ghost Town - First Aid Kit

A small slab of the glorious history of popular British protest music ...

  • Between the Wars - Billy Bragg
  • Shipbuilding - Elvis Costello
  • Eton Rifles - The Jam
  • Time for Heroes  - The Libertines
  • Working Class Hero - John Lennon
  • Give Ireland Back to the Irish - Paul McCartney
  • Free Nelson Mandela - The Specials
  • Free Satpal Ram - Asian Dub Foundation
  • Running the World - Jarvis Cocker

  • God Save the Queen - The Sex  Pistols
  • The Queen is Dead - The Smiths
  • Let England Shake - PJ Harvey
  • Paper Planes - MIA
  • iLL Manors - Plan B
  • Cap in Hand - The Proclaimers
  • Ready for Drowning - Manic Street Preachers
  • The Mountain People - Super Furry Animals
  • Sunrise - The Divine Comedy