Monday, 30 December 2013

2013: Year of the American Black Man and his Voice

The weirdest exchange has taken place: Britain successfully exported retro pop acts like Amy Winehouse and Adele to America while the US has actively developed classic funk and soul artists that have made greater waves in Europe than at home.
2013 produced some amazing American funk and soul tracks that instantly register as classic tunes, only they were produced and recorded over the last twelve months. It should be every American’s patriotic duty to celebrate the brilliance of such marvellous home-grown music.
Myron & E’s If I Gave you my Love
Sat here in Britain, South Central LA is to us the home of drive –by shootings, Death Row Records and violent ghetto movies of the early ‘90s. It turns out that the ineffably soulful Myron is from those very ghetto fabulous streets of Los Angeles while his singing partner, E, hails from the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey (that place also produced ghetto fabulously violent movies like New Jersey Drive). Together they evoke the kind of sounds that must make Martin Scorsese want to call up Robert De Niro and get another mobster movie going. This is good stuff, and because I like you so much, you can have it for free.

Charles Bradley’s Victim of Love
Bradley was mentioned on this blog early on in 2013, but his cache in Europe has gotten even bigger. The singer spent much of his life abandoned and homeless, receiving a late career opportunity as a James Brown impersonator in California. It was thanks to the clever guys at Daptone Records that Bradley actually got his start as a recording artist in his own right and began producing original material. This clip is taken from a live recording at the Fluxbau in Berlin and the crowd’s adoration of Bradley’s performance easily conveys just how much he’s won over European fans in the last few years.

Booker T's Watch you Sleeping
It's probably a miscalculation adding the legendary Booker T to this list of largely unknowns, but one can't resist because it's likely this song was largely overlooked in America. Booker T teamed up with Kori Withers for this one and produced a modern day classic. The song would play on British radio last summer, totally befitting the warmest season we've had in six years. Considering that Booker T stopped making albums in 1989, the last few years has seen him firing on all cylinders, producing no less than three records in four years. This track is gorgeous.

Roman GianArthur’s I-69
Roman GianArthur is of the Wondaland Arts Society movement which is the stable of notable funk acts like Janelle MonĂ e and Terrence Brown. Wondaland has a pretty magnificent manifesto in which it postulates that its artists must wear tuxedos every day, jump into pools during performances, wear Civil War hats at all times and rock vintage Jordans when in public. It’s no surprise that Wondaland is rocking it in Europe as its radical policies seems way better than the inept politics that has strangled our union in what must be the most prolonged economic maelstrom in living memory. The video underneath demonstrates why GianArthur’s talents will corner the market in coolness. This cat is the epitome of smooth and reminds me so much of myself (tongue is firmly in cheek).

Sunday, 22 December 2013

-Music Videos on my Mind- Metronomy's "I'm Aquarius"

Electronic music has strangely enough superseded rock ‘n’ roll as the youths’ sound of choice. Guys that were bullied at school for spending too much time indoors playing with technology have become aspirational, while those that revelled in sex and drugs have become un-cool. In a topsy-turvy turn of events, the former commands millions to spin records in hip clubs across the world and the latter struggles to land a record deal. How did that happen?
With a video echoing outer space B-movie kitsch and featuring creepy furless cats, Metronomy’s Im Aquarius plays like an art student’s final year film presentation. It’s a serviceable piece but hardly launches the group in exciting new directions.
Then again, there is no direction to change because as the lead single from the group’s second album, I’m Aquarius signals that Metronomy aren’t willing to tinker too much with a successful formula which last time resulted in major acclaim and lucrative remix commissions from Lady Gaga and Lykke Li. This kind of monotony is paying off in spades.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

British Music Ends the Year in Style

It is always a point of credulity when a music blogger puts their neck out at the beginning of the year and declares that the following 12 months will be festooned with white guys with guitars reclaiming their rightful place at the top of the music food chain.
Instead British music in 2013 was a more omnivorous affair with lots of different things happening. Below is a scant snapshot of the range on offer this month. It seems the future of British music (note to one’s self) will be protean and unpredictable, but also pretty exciting.

A Year of British Rap
Ghostpoet’s Season Change
Ghostpoet is equal parts chameleon, Corinthian and caricature. He is a rapper from Coventry, a post-industrial multicultural city that was the home of landmark British acts like The Specials and The Selecter. Like the latter two acts, Ghostpoet’s animated inventiveness is countered with despondent lyrics about life’s unremitting daily grind. There’s a jolting anxiety and uneasiness to his work that makes one realise he has very real things to say about the human condition. His work with African Express this year made for a Malian rhythm infused record that blends tribal drums with anachronistic arcade game sounds. The lyrics are desperate and needy, yearning for change and redemption – very much echoing the plights of both the disenfranchised underclassmen of Britain and the war torn peoples of central Africa where Season Change was recorded.

A Year of British Rock
Royal Blood’s Out of the Black
Even though British guitar music failed to deliver in big ways this year, there was some good stuff. One group that registered is Royal Blood, a two-piece rock act from Brighton that manages to create an epic sound despite only consisting of a bass guitar and drums. Locked somewhere between the anger of Rage Against the Machine and the sheen of Muse, Royal Blood isn’t just raucous noise, there is a great deal of skill at play here, much of it inspired by everyone from Led Zeppelin to The Pixies.

A Year of British Country
Ned Roberts’ Blues #6
Britain makes country music? No, not really, though there is a movement called Cowboys for Country Music that pickets major broadcasting headquarters and line-dances in front of them in an effort to make UK radio stations play more mainstream American country music. Country music is seen as far too removed from British culture, but Ned Roberts is a figure that sounds like the reincarnation of Tex Owens. To be fair, our Ned is American by birth but he has made his home here in England and draws as much inspiration from the bucolic wilderness of Wiltshire as he does the wild west of Wyoming.

A Year of British Electronic Dance
Jon Hopkins’ Collider
Dance music flows through the veins of Europeans. It belongs to us and has been a mainstay of our music culture for decades. Dance music is what brings Europe together, a unifying backdrop that enables us to engage in common equanimity. Before dance music came about we were constantly warring with each other, but now we get down in shared appreciation of binary rhythms and beats. While the Americans insist on cheapening the brand by proclaiming cheesy EDM as their saviour, we Europeans know real dance music when we hear it. Britain’s Jon Hopkins has produced the kind of record that does something familiar but adds melodic touches and flourishes you don’t see coming. This is a thinking person’s dance music and has one heck of a music video accompanying it.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Is Jennifer Lawrence a Movie Star?

Sandwiched between the phenomenal successes of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and this month’s awards’ baiting release of American Hustle, it seems an apt moment to ask ourselves if Jennifer Lawrence is the real deal?

The British cultural academic Richard Dyer wrote a seminal book in 1979 called Stars, in which he theorised the notion that audiences will engage with a film on the basis of our pre-existing perceptions of a celebrated movie star. Dyer’s book was the first proper intellectual exploration of how movie marketing and reviews hinge around the cultural sway of a movie star, focussing on the significance of stardom in American cinema.
Dyer in film academia is the man that brought forward the idea of star theory and provided the tools necessary for analysing how an actor’s constructed identity meshes with the performance given. By this definition, films live and breathe through what movie stars bring to them. Our idolisation of a movie star is what primarily attracts us to the picture, with us wanting to see the story play out through the living embodiment of the actor, making themes, morals, ideas and messages more effectively communicable due to the fact that we can relate better with the stars acting in it. For this very reason we will rush to see Tom Cruise acting in a movie in which he dramatises the harrowing experiences of a Vietnam vet paralysed by war injuries, and pay good money to see Tom Hanks star in a picture in which he plays a homosexual AIDS sufferer on the cusp of death but battling against his former employers for unfair dismissal. Movie stars enable instant communication and appeal of a given film. Without movie stars you have no film industry.
So how does Jennifer Lawrence fit into this? Most will argue that she is the epitome of Dyer’s star theory, but one is not instantly convinced. You see, Lawrence seems an icon of our times, but whether she has the pull of attracting audiences to see her in challenging roles is up for debate. Her break out role was in Winter’s Bone in which her performance as a troubled teenager in rural Ozarks attempting to prevent her family from eviction by trying to locate their missing father garnered much praise and an Oscar nomination. As a result, her ‘star’ power quickly intensified, with Lawrence winning coveted roles in X-Men and as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Earlier this year she won Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her performance as the kooky young widow Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook. If anything, the last three years both prove and justify Jennifer Lawrence’s range, respect and reliability, warranting all claims of her being a movie star whom elevates the standing of any film she stars in.

But will Jennifer Lawrence’s name really guarantee box-office success? In truth, Silver Linings Playbook made more than $100 million at the American box-office in spite of its odd premise, but it was aided by a stellar ensemble cast that appealed to a mass demographic, a well-respected director at the helm, and the marketing muscle of the Weinstein Company. Ultimately, Silver Linings Playbook worked because underneath its awkward veneer it’s basically a feel good film with attractive leads.

On the other hand, Sandra Bullock is a true female movie star. She is someone audiences connect with. Never has an American actress made a succession of rotten movies and still managed to conjure billions in box-office revenues the way Bullock has. In a career consisting of crap like Demolition Man, The Net, Practical Magic and The Proposal (to name a few), Bullock has managed to spend the last twenty years bouncing from one unremarkable picture to the next, all watermarked with her persona of unquestionable beauty and affable quirkiness. Bullock has pretty much given the same performance in every film she’s made, retaining a lucrative and charming formula that has resulted in a career which has endured the usual pitfalls actresses of a certain age befall. Her turn in this autumn’s Gravity was basically Sandra Bullock lost in space, though her performance was technically satisfactory and serviced a truly cinematic event. Gravity has been a huge success because of the innovation on offer, but its saleability is essentially due to the fact that audiences identify and care about Sandra Bullock. Gravity initially played best to a 30+ audience, with word of mouth about its amazing artistry and technicalities filtering down to younger markets. Gravity is an event picture but it’s anchored by Bullock’s reliability as a movie star. Even if all else failed, older audiences that adore Bullock would have been there. As long as Bullock remains the movie star she is, her audience will remain loyal.
Many genuinely believe that Jennifer Lawrence is a once in a generation movie star, with young audiences loving her grounded personality and devil-may-care attitude. She’s adorable and talented, but can she open a movie? The Hunger Games franchise certainly benefits from Lawrence’s inclusion, but it was a publishing phenomenon even before she came on board. The X-Men franchise was massive prior to her taking on the latest incarnation of Mystique, and will be instantly recast if she ever relinquishes the role. American Hustle, much like Silver Linings Playbook, is an ensemble piece in which many constituent parts provide star wattage. The notion that audiences will flock to any old crap Lawrence puts her name to the way Bullock can remains untested, and for that reason her stardom is questionable.

To be honest, movie stars don’t matter as much as they used to. Personalities count for less than brand recognition. Lawrence, timid of things like Twitter and celebrity, wants her performances to define her, but we live in a different era. Her hairstyles and fashion choices gain traction on the blogosphere, but she remains cagey about how much access she gives. Her greatest asset is that she doesn’t take herself seriously, which separates her from the annoyingness of Anne Hathaway and the blandness of say Lily Collins. Lawrence is doing everything better than anyone else in the game, but it still may not be enough because the concept of movie stardom isn’t what it was.
Richard Dyer’s mantra on movie stars is that without them you cannot really have a film industry. Nowadays it costs more money to sell a film than to actually make it. Furthermore, audiences are historically less discerning than they have ever been in the past. As Hollywood focuses on flogging branded concepts without nurturing the next generation of movie stars, it may mark the death of cinema as we know it, and Lawrence may be the last twinkling hope in an industry teetering on the brink of irrelevance.