Tuesday 24 February 2009

Sin-Full Thoughts: Tori's Title

So a new Amos album title to chew over … Abnormally Attracted To Sin is growing on me - it suggests a painting, or an installation of some kind, appropriate in the light of the visuals she’s developing - and I like it especially in the context of the entire Guys and Dolls quote, Sarah’s cynical response to Sky’s come-on (“You’re not the first man to try that approach, Mr. Masterson”). The tension of being “abnormally attracted to sin, and therefore abnormally afraid of it” sounds like a productive one: tensions, paradoxes and ambiguities being the life-blood of Tori’s best art. She’s become increasingly brilliant at incorporating dialogue and conversation into her lyrics, too, but then “the way we communicate” has always been a major, major concern. I think she’s our most undervalued great artist these days, and it’s sad but I guess inevitable that her work now receives less press interest and acclaim than that of ridiculous Yank-fakers like Winehouse and Duffy, overrated icons of blandness like Cat Power and Feist, or purveyors of musical wallpaper such as Goldfrapp, who seem to me to release work that is, consistently, about absolutely nothing at all. The negative, sceptical comments posted by some of her “fans” about the title are all too predictable as well: at this point “Nothing I do is good enough for you” is a line she could sing at rather than for much of her fan-base, so many of them weirdly dedicated to pulling apart everything she does, says, wears, or releases. It’s dispiriting, evidence that people are so easily led by the press and just aren’t up for the album-as-experience that she so brilliantly provides. Sometimes I wonder if the Internet hasn’t entirely spoilt the way people experience recorded music - it all seems to be about trying to hear a song before anyone else, making some shallow snap judgment based on the most cursory listen, and then moving on to something else. Internet culture at its worst … And can there be any two Western countries that are more mortally afraid of ideas - especially (whisper it) feminist ideas - than England and America? For me Tori continues to produce work that’s fuller of feeling, interest, ambition, emotion and thought than any other artist. She’s an inspirationally hard worker, and I for one am glad that she continues to follow her own path, not taking the sadly predictable steps of collaborating with Timbaland or duetting with Antony. I can't see how her music could be any richer or more expansive if she did widen her circle of collaborators to include those currently in vogue, and the multi-media elements she incorporates strike me as bold and daring and original. The brilliance of ADP was its exploration of what you can do with your identity, its deconstruction of stereotypes, labels and pigeonholes. So, can’t wait for AATS.

Friday 20 February 2009

New Ozon (III)

A cool Ozon interview here:

Shakespeare Goes Shawshank: Propeller's Merchant of Venice

An all-male Merchant of Venice set in a prison doesn’t sound particularly promising. But Ed Hall’s ever-brilliant Propeller company pulls it off in a spectacular way in this production, discovering all kinds of fresh material in a play that many think has more than had its day. On Hall’s oddly effective set - more prison of the mind than literal penitentiary - the play becomes a series of variations on the theme of entrapment, with all the characters - Christian and Jew, male and female alike - occupying their own cells at various times: due to race, religion, and, most especially perhaps, love. Kelsey Brookfield’s Portia is the most sympathetic rendering of the character I’ve ever seen, and I also loved Chris Myles’s sublimely naughty Nerissa (the flamenco dance!), John Dougall’s wryly sinister Launcelot Gobbo, Jon Trenchard’s fearful Jessica (exchanging one oppressor for another in the shape of Lorenzo; the “mark the music” scene is superbly done), Bob Barrett making Antonio into something more interesting than a masochistic whinger, and Jack Tarlton creating a memorable Bassanio of bratty opportunism, sexual manipulation and, eventually, regret. Not entirely sure about Richard Clothier’s Shylock, and an added eye-gouging scene, which seems to have wandered in from King Lear, is a silly shock tactic. But the cast work beautifully together as ever and the production develops its own compelling atmosphere as Christian hymns become taunting dirges and prison doors clang. It’s not the most audience-interactive of Propeller’s shows (though thank you, Chris Myles, for chucking Portia’s shawl right in my face on your entrance!), but it’s full of detail, energy and intelligence and is sharply attuned to the play’s shifts in power. A revelation.

Monday 9 February 2009

Home by Marilynne Robinson

In Home, Marilynne Robinson has written a very compelling companion novel to her beautiful, bracingly unfashionable Pulitzer Prize winner, Gilead. Coming to that novel in 2006 straight after reading the hysterical over-hyped trash-fest We Need To Talk About Kevin was like a restorative blast of fresh air, Shriver’s unconvincing melodramatics replaced by the deep contemplation and compassion of Robinson’s text. Conditioned by the resolutely secular ethos of contemporary lit, I kept waiting for Robinson’s narrator, the Congregationalist minister Reverend John Ames, to be revealed as hypocrite, paedophile or fraud. Not so: Robinson dared to present Ames as a good man, the kind of character so rarely seen in modern fiction. Robinson’s clear, distilled language expertly captured Ames’s voice, with the text constructed as an extended testament - part reminiscence, part rumination, part reverie - to the character’s young son. Home doesn’t have quite the greatness of Gilead - it feels like a more conventional work - but it expands upon the earlier novel in extremely interesting ways. All current lit trends - for violence, sex, obvious “drama” - are graciously ignored. But in its quiet way this is a novel that’s fully engaged with American culture, politics and history, especially the issue of race. Robinson brings it all together in a final scene of subtle power and brief connection. It’s a lovely, moving book.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

The Crying Light

Could it be that his endless guest appearances on other people’s albums have left Antony with insufficient time and energy to dedicate to his own band? Certainly, The Crying Light feels a little disappointing, slight and under-worked despite its nearly four-year gestation. Antony’s claim that the group are “already on Kate Bush’s schedule” for album-making sounds like a boast, a recourse to that dubious equation between artistic perfectionism and just taking a bloody long time over making a record. It doesn’t explain why these ten tracks feel, as a whole, fairly minor and insubstantial. That said, there are things to love: the way the album answers I Am A Bird Now's final image of transcendence by starting subterranean (“Her Eyes Underneath the Ground,” which seems like a mere taster of wonderful things to come, turns out to be the record's great highlight); the redemptive elegance and off-kilter end of “One Dove”; the moment when it sounds like Antony’s singing “Jung’s eyes forlorn” on “Aeon”; the rapturous finale of “Everglade.” And of course throughout there’s always that voice with its arresting intimacy, its suggestions of secret knowledge, its ability to slice through race, gender and genre boundaries, and reach deep inside the listener. But what’s missing are the gospel elements, the sense of theatricality and drama, that characterised the debut album, or the subversive lyrical content that gave Bird Now bite. The Crying Light, with its tremulous, delicate arrangements, sometimes silly surreal-pastoral imagery and Antony’s mostly restrained vocals, is a little too exquisite for its own good, lacking the slightly dangerous, seedy eroticism of some of the earlier work. There’s a precious quality to the end result, the kind of studied artiness which turned the band's concert with the LSO back in October into a rather self-absorbed, masturbatory experience. It’s practically impossible, here, to imagine Antony singing a line like “I’ll swallow shit, laughing/On my bed of hay” as on his Divine eulogy. The somewhat Bush-ish “Epilepsy is Dancing” irritates, while “Kiss My Name,” percussive and quite dynamic in concert, sounds merely camp. “Dust and Water” could be Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But the biggest disappointment, to me, is the absence of “Christina’s Farm,” the shivers-down-the-spine highlight of the LSO show. Happily, though, Antony has the nicely unfashionable habit of using some of his best songs as B-Sides so it might yet turn up. And maybe, by that time, The Crying Light will have proved itself an album to grow into.