Tuesday 26 April 2011

CD Review: Walk by Israel Cannan (Poet's Corner)

Walk (2010) is an extremely assured and consistently engaging first album from Australian singer-songwriter Israel Cannan. The record evolved from Cannan’s travels across Australia, where he drove through every state, writing songs, busking, and otherwise developing and promoting his music. “Concept album” feels like too grandiose a term for the resulting, fairly modest record, but it’s certainly true that Walk holds together very well as a song cycle; its 13 tracks are carefully sequenced and paced, arranged, I would suggest, to convey the rhythms of a journey, from urgent stride to measured stroll, with moments of quiet contemplation. Cannan wrote, produced, and recorded the album solo, and plays all the instruments himself, with most of the songs centred around his (acoustic and electric) guitar-playing, and augmented by drums, harmonica, and piano. The album combines folky intimacy and rock attitude, with even its gentlest songs anchored by strong hooks. Vocally, there’s a suggestion of Eddie Vedder to Cannan’s delivery, and he variously croons, whispers, rasps and bellows with dexterity. The urgent strum of the opening track “Set Me Free” places its protagonist on the cusp of departure with no clear destination in mind, Cannan inviting the listener into the album with the repeated inquiry : “Where do you want to go/While the day‘s still young?” From there, the songs go on to develop as little bulletins focusing on different aspects of travel: arriving, waiting, departing, getting lost. Appropriately enough Cannan’s melodies don’t always take the expected route, either; the strongest tracks here move in sometimes surprising directions. “The Final Day,” for example, opens, with a Pixies-ish bass riff while “On My Way” starts out uncannily like Holly Throsby before picking up pace and urgency in the infectious choruses. Turbulent percussion intrudes effectively into the jaunty “Let It Rain,” while the ringing “To The Left” is constructed inside out, with driving, propulsive verses and slowed choruses. “Forever This Time” is a quiet anthem, with delicate harmony vocals and squeaky guitar-strings. And the lovely “Letting Go” shifts brilliantly from tentativeness to exuberance, as its repeated title becomes a mantra of affirmation, rather than an admission of surrender or defeat.

Walk suffers a little bit from singer-songwriter earnestness: some of the lyrical imagery is rather familiar and a touch of humour wouldn’t go amiss. But otherwise this mature, soulful and generous-spirited record is a highly accomplished debut.

Cannan tours the UK next month. Further details here

Friday 22 April 2011

CD Review: Hard Bargain by Emmylou Harris (Nonesuch)

On her superb new album Hard Bargain, Emmylou Harris continues to blend elements of rock, country, folk and gospel with inimitable elegance and style - as well as a spirit of experimentation and adventure that leaves some younger talents looking a little bit staid. (Yes, step forward Alison Krauss and Union Station.) The album, which is Harris’s 22nd solo studio release, is a beauty, its freshness possibly attributable to the fact that it teams Harris with a new producer, Jay Joyce (helmer of Patty Griffin’s Flaming Red [1998], on which Harris cameoed), and finds the artist taking a somewhat atypical approach to recording.

Harris can generally be relied upon to enlist a number of guest musicians and duet partners for a project; this is, after all, the woman who got Bruce Springsteen to chip in on just a couple of lines on “Tragedy” on her 2000 album Red Dirt Girl. Hard Bargain, though, was recorded in Nashville in one month with just two other musicians - producer Joyce, and Giles Reeves - with Harris taking care of all vocals and harmonies. But the record is far from sparse or stripped-down as you might expect from such a set-up. Rather, Joyce and Reeves operate an arsenal of instruments between them, including pianos, Omnichord, marimbula, vibraphone, djembe, organ, synths, shaker and a whole lotta guitars. The resulting sound contrasts sharply with the more traditional, back-to-basics aesthetic of Harris’s last album, All I Intended to Be (2008), and instead edges at times towards the rockier, ambient textures of Wrecking Ball (1995) and Red Dirt Girl. If the album doesn’t, ultimately, quite scale the heights of those two masterpieces, it’s still a deeply rewarding and affecting piece of work, and one that finds Harris singing as captivatingly as ever.

Despite her noted forays into original composition in recent years, Harris still remains more celebrated as a song interpreter than a song-writer. All I Intended to Be was mostly covers but Hard Bargain marks a sustained return to original composition for her, comprising eleven new songs and just two cover versions. For the most part, the new songs take a more direct and straightforward lyrical approach than many of Harris’s previous compositions, which have sometimes tended to cloak their revelations in figurative language.

The bracing opening song, “The Road,” is a case in point. It’s a track that has already attracted considerable attention, as it’s another of Harris’s songs about Gram Parsons, and a very moving one at that. If “Boulder to Birmingham” was the raw, notes-from-the-front reaction to Parsons’s passing and The Ballad of Sally Rose (1985) a complex fictionalisation of their collaboration in concept album form, then “The Road” is a mature, reflective meditation on Parsons's legacy, as Harris looks back on the partnership that changed the direction of her artistic life, the song taking the form of a direct address to the deceased. Musically, the song is grounded by sturdy, thwacked drums and assertive electric guitar work that underpins even the soaring ethereal choruses, while Harris’s vocal deftly transforms lyrics that read like clichés (“People come and people go/And nothing ever lasts”) into statements of emotional profundity, culminating in a declaration that grabs the heart in its simplicity and directness: “On this road I’m glad I came to know you, my old friend.”

The road, of course, is one of the most iconic of country music symbols, and it’s the focus of the next song as well, the hobo’s refrain “Home Sweet Home” on which Harris sings from the point-of-view of one of “God’s children…/out there looking for a home.” Though the subject matter might suggest otherwise, the ringing instrumentation and an infectious rhythm mean that the track isn’t depressing. That goes for most of the songs here which, while dealing with habitual Harris subject matter - loss, loneliness, grief, regret - don’t wallow for too long in despair, instead finding redemption in unexpected places, as well as through the liveliness and energy of the musicianship. The punchy “New Orleans,” for example, is a stirring survivor’s anthem, infused with both guitar grit and gospel spirit. And the lighter moments are nicely achieved, from the languid, Elite Hotel-worthy honky tonk of “Six White Cadillacs” to the clumpy percussion and twangy guitar of “Big Black Dog,” a heartfelt yet goofy ode to canine companionship that may well find its way into RSPCA ads very soon.

There are gentler moments too. “The Ship On His Arm,” a tale of two lovers separated by war, flirts with schmaltz but Harris’s shimmering vocal gives the piece emotional weight. “Darlin’ Kate,” meanwhile, is as touching a tribute to Harris’s great friend and collaborator Kate McGarrigle as you would imagine. Again, it’s lyrically straightforward but what’s remarkable is the way that the arrangement and Harris’s vocal delivery combine to conjure Kate’s spirit in the song, so that a track about loss and absence makes its subject palpably present. Two songs tackle the issue of “third age” loneliness head-on, firstly the tremulous “Lonely Girl” and then the lyrically more interesting and ambitious “Nobody,” which traces a trajectory from childhood hope to adult disillusionment, concluding with a moving redemptive flourish that brilliantly brings the song full circle.

The weakest moment, for me, is “My Name Is Emmet Till,” a song about the African-American teenager who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for flirting with a white woman and became a martyr for the Civil Rights movement, as well the subject of one of Bob Dylan’s most didactic songs. Unlike Dylan, Harris sings the song from Till’s perspective, and while her delivery is discreet and poignant the track doesn’t quite work, feeling, overall, like too self-conscious an effort to construct a first-person narrative in the Nebraska-era Springsteen or Steve Earle mould. But the two covers that Harris has included are real album highlights, and ones that blend seamlessly with the original material. Her faithful take on Ron Sexsmith’s “Hard Bargain” twangs and twinkles captivatingly, with Harris’s voice transitioning from breathy highs to grainy lows, while the Joyce composition “Cross Yourself,” all warm, chiming guitars and chugging percussion, closes the album on a truly lovely note of optimism and emotional openness. “There’s no day like today,” Harris affirms. “Everything that’s meant to be, come to me.”

“It’s important to push the envelope of what we call country music without ever losing sight of the most important element, the soul,” Harris has been quoted as saying. Harris has been pushing that particular envelope for almost forty years now and Hard Bargain demonstrates again her uncanny ability to draw on the past and come up with something vital and fresh. This is another masterful release from her, a record of encompassing warmth and emotional insight, grit and timeless grace.

Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Review: 3 Terence Rattigan Adaptations (BFI)

To accompany their major season of Terence Rattigan-scripted films which is underway this month, BFI Southbank have added a selection of television adaptations of Rattigan’s work to the Mediatheque archive, giving viewers a rare (and free!) opportunity to see several key television productions. Over the past week I watched three of the adaptations - The Browning Version (1985) starring Ian Holm and Judi Dench; Cause Célébre (1987), with Helen Mirren and David Morrissey; and The Deep Blue Sea (1994) with Penelope Wilton and Colin Firth - and wanted to record a few thoughts on them here.

Cause Célébre (ITV 1987, dir. John Gorrie)

As an adaptation case study, the most interesting (though not the best) of the three productions is undoubtedly Cause Célébre, Rattigan’s 1977 play about the Alma Rattenbury murder trial which is currently being staged by Thea Sharrock at the Old Vic [review here]. What’s interesting about the TV adaptation is the fairly radical way in which director John Gorrie and screenwriter Ken Taylor have transformed the play. Gone is the clunky parallel plot involving the leader of the jury at the trial; instead the adaptation focuses on Alma’s developing relationship with her young lover George, her family life, the murder of her husband, and the ensuing court case. Though there are loses to this streamlining of the plot, there are also considerable gains in clarity and focus, and, for me, the adaptation made much more sense of the material than Sharrock’s Old Vic production (or indeed Rattigan’s play itself) really succeeded in doing.

The play’s structure at times felt forced, and awkward, as if Rattigan was straining to prove that he could construct a non-linear narrative. Elements that seemed frustratingly sketchy in the original are developed in the TV adaptation, and though the results are, formally, much more conventional, they’re also more emotionally insightful. Alma and George’s relationship is skilfully fleshed out, we get a much clearer sense of Alma’s conflicts as a mother, wife and lover, and Taylor has written some excellent new scenes for the minor characters. The actors benefit from this: Harry Andrews, as Alma’s ill-fated husband, registers strongly, while David Morrissey is also memorable as George, presenting the character as a film-fed fantasist capable of both tenderness and violence. And Mirren is superb, especially in the scene in which Alma finds her husband’s body. In contrast to the somewhat arch and artificial tone of Sharrock’s production, Gorrie’s adaptation grounds the play in naturalistic domestic detail, and the trial scenes (again, judiciously trimmed) are also well-handled, with excellent work from David Suchet as Alma’s shrewd lawyer and from Oliver Ford Davies as George’s defence counsel. (The production is worth seeing simply for Davies’s inimitable delivery of the line “a woman of abnormal sexual appetites.”) This Cause Célébre isn’t quite Rattigan’s Cause Célébre but it’s a worthy account of a flawed play, as well as a fascinating companion piece to the Old Vic production.

The Browning Version (BBC 1985, dir. Michael A Simpson)
In contrast to Gorrie and Taylor’s fairly free adaptation of one of Rattigan’s lesser-known dramas, Simpson’s The Browning Version and Karel Reisz’s The Deep Blue Sea are thoroughly faithful, and stylistically conservative, renderings of Rattigan’s two best-regarded plays. But both are stunningly good. Eschewing any obvious “opening out” of the action, the two productions are “filmed theatre” in the best sense, placing the emphasis firmly upon dialogue and performance, while also benefiting from the increased intimacy of the close-up and the quick shifts in perspective that the camera provides. The Browning Version has superb performances from Ian Holm as the ageing, unloved Classics schoolmaster Crocker-Harris, and from Judi Dench as his  resentful wife, Millie, who’s involved in an affair with one of her husband’s colleagues (Michael Kitchen). The role of this humourless stickler of a tutor is a challenge for an actor, but Holm plays it to perfection, presenting Crocker-Harris as a man who’s closed himself off from others through a mixture of pride and self-contempt. Dench, meanwhile, brings gusto, and a touch of glamour, to Millie's cruelty, while also making clear the disappointments that have driven her there. (What is it about Dench’s performances? They always make the viewer feel more alert and alive, somehow.) And it’s very pleasing to see the young Steven Mackintosh in an early role as the student, Taplow, whose unanticipated gift briefly succeeds in piercing Crocker-Harris’s reserve, in a scene that is a powerfully affecting highlight of the production. It can be watched on YouTube.

The Deep Blue Sea (BBC 1994, dir. Karel Reisz)

As Sir William Collyer, the unlucky Holm gets to play the cuckold again in Reisz's 1994 BBC teleplay of The Deep Blue Sea, delivering another excellent performance, one that doesn’t ask for - or inspire - much sympathy. As in The Browning Version, every shift of feeling and allegiance registers in Reisz’s production (which originated at the Almeida in 1993 and then transferred to the Apollo) and the standard of performance is extremely high. Penelope Wilton’s award-winning Hester is stunning; Wilton brings understated intensity (and a great deal of wit) to the role and powerfully conveys Hester’s emotional and sexual dependency upon Freddie. Her scenes with Holm (to whom she was really married at the time) combine tension with striking moments of complicity and connection that suggest a real history together. Colin Firth gives what I think is one of his finest-ever performances as Freddie, and there's distinguished supporting work from Stephen Tompkinson and Geraldine Sommerville as the Welches, Carmel McSharry as Mrs. Elton and Wojciech Pszoniak as Miller. Reisz truncates the crucial climactic encounter between Hester and Miller and slightly reduces the impact of the scene. But the production is compelling throughout, and comes to a graceful and moving end.

The humanity of Rattigan’s writing and the propensity of his work to give sympathetic voice to characters who are harshly judged or dismissed by others emerges strongly in all of these fine adaptations, each of which is well worth seeing. What’s slightly tormenting about the productions is that they’re a reminder of just how great British TV drama was, and how closely connected to theatre, not so very long ago.

CD Review: Horses and High Heels by Marianne Faithfull

Marianne Faithfull’s last record Easy Come, Easy Go was an ambitious double album of covers that featured an extraordinary role-call of guest artists and ranged widely through musical genres, finding space for songs by Dolly Parton, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Judee Sill, Duke Ellington, Morrissey, Espers, Merle Haggard, and many more. In terms of quality control, Easy Come, Easy Go was, like much of Faithfull’s recorded output, an erratic release, one that lurched wildly from the sublime (Faithfull and Nick Cave tackling The Decembrists’s “The Crane Wife”) to the ridiculous (a truly bizarre cover of Bernstein/Sondheim’s “Somewhere (A Place For Us”) with Jarvis Cocker). But the album nonetheless generated a cumulative excitement as Faithfull and her collaborators somehow turned the album’s mixture of folk, blues, jazz, country and contemporary rock songs into something resembling a cohesive statement. Uniting the diverse material was, of course, Faithfull’s distinctive smoky croak, with its strange, singular mixture of punky defiance, folky intimacy and Dietrich-esque hauteur.

Faithfull returns with a somewhat lower-key release in Horses and High Heels, her 23rd solo album. Produced again by Hal Willner and recorded in the New Orleans French Quarter, the record features four songs co-written by Faithfull and eight cover versions, including a track written especially for her by the playwright Frank McGuinness. The roster of big-name collaborators has been significantly trimmed (oh, but wait! There’s Lou Reed on guitar! And Dr. John! And MC5’s Wayne Kramer!), but the album makes the most of the talents of some crack New Orleans musicians including drummer Carlo Nuccio and bassist George Porter Jr. There’s a palpable Crescent City vibe to many of the tracks, and, in its merging of blues, soul and rock elements, the record is close in spirit to an album such as Bettye LaVette’s contemporary classic I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. One of Faithfull’s most consistently engaging releases, Horses and High Heels is strong enough to withstand that particular comparison.

Faithfull has described Horses and High Heels as an atypical release for her, in that “it’s a very happy record. I’m not depressed anymore … So I suppose this album is a bit of a breakthrough.” The galvanising take on The Twilight Singers’s “The Stations” opens the record doesn’t really bear out that statement. It’s a wonderfully portentous beginning, with Faithfull intoning the mysterious lyrics against twitchy, chiming guitar and mournful violin: “They say the rapture’s coming/They say he’ll be here soon/Right now there’s demons crawling/All over my room.” There’s nothing feel-good about the following track either, the straight-up break-up lament “Why Did We Have To Part?” which Faithfull penned with Laurent Voulzy. The lyrics are a touch prosy but there’s a straightforward candour to the song and to Faithfull’s performance that’s ineffably touching.

Subsequent tracks are more diverse in tone and mood, however. For starters there’s the rollicking juke-joint swagger of Jackie Lomax‘s “No Reason” and surprisingly charming takes on Joe & Ann’s “Gee Baby” and Allen Toussaint’s “Back In Baby’s Arms.” The redemptive “Prussian Blue,” meanwhile, is one of the loveliest things that Faithfull has ever written and despite a rather weak vocal that’s buried too low in the mix, the spiritual power of the song still comes through loud and clear. Strings, harp, woodwind and piano underscore Faithfull’s spoken-word delivery of The Shangri-Las’ “Past Present Future”; it’s a brazenly kitsch but strangely effective interpretation.

Two songs co-written with Doug Pettibone - the Celtic-tinged title track and the appealing, up tempo “Eternity” (complete with sample from Brian Jones’s 1968 Morroccan recordings) - both feel fresh and vital, while McGuiness’s “The Old House” proves a stellar close to the album, building from a stately opening to a sensational guitar-heavy finish that cuts out abruptly, leaving the listener hungry for more.

Though Faithfull can certainly hold her own with a full band, it’s arguably the quieter moments on Horses and High Heels that cut the deepest. Her reading of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Goin’ Back”(most widely known in Dusty Springfield’s commanding version) is understated and moving, with Faithfull digging deeply into the soul of the song. The same goes for a spare and poignant rendering of Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” that boasts perhaps the album’s most affecting vocal performance. “Love is the key we must turn/Truth is the flame we must burn/Freedom is the lesson we must learn” Faithfull instructs, and the lines sound like very hard-won wisdom indeed.

In sum, the strong and seamless mixture of new and old material on Horses and High Heels makes the record one of Faithfull’s finest releases. This is a rewarding and accomplished piece of work from an artist who continues to intrigue and surprise.

Reviewed for PopMatters.

Friday 15 April 2011

Meek's Cutoff (again)

O pioneers! Out today in the UK, Kelly Reichardt's awesome Meek's Cutoff. Reviewed here.

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Film Review: Homme Au Bain (Honoré, 2010)


Homme au bain (Man at Bath) (2010) is a strange and surprising film for Christophe Honoré to have made, but it’s a compelling and sometimes fascinating experience nonetheless. A 70 minute  (s)experimental work that Honoré appears to have tossed off (ahem) fairly quickly, the movie charts the post-break up experiences of a couple, Emmanuel (François Sagat) and Omar (Omar Ben Sellem), when the latter departs for a trip to New York, telling Emmanuel to have left their Gennevilliers   apartment by the time he returns. The film then splits into a double narrative, following Emmanuel as he shuttles between various lovers in Gennevilliers, and Omar in New York where he’s promoting his new film with its star (Chiara Mastroianni) and begins a liaison with a young Canadian actor. 

“In my films, I have given an increasing amount of space to language,” Honoré says. "This time I wanted to film bodies. The sculpted, mistreated, exaggerated body of Emmanuel’s character. And the easy-going, pleasurable, mixed-race bodies of his successive lovers." This may explain the air of self-consciousness that pervades Homme au bain; often, the film feels more like material for a thesis on the gaze or the haptic than anything else. Taking its title from the famous Gustave Caillebotte painting, Homme au bain obsesses over the bodies of its cast members, and serves up scene after scene of "tactile" imagery. The film also follows in the (dis?)honourable tradition of Catherine Breillat in Romance (1999) and Anatomy of Hell (2004) by casting a porn star in a lead acting role. Here it’s Sagat as Emmanuel, an odd presence to be sure, variously fearsome and vulnerable, exploiter and exploited. “You look like a sculpture… But you’re bad art, you’re kitsch,” Emmanuel is told (by a character played by Dennis Cooper, no less), in one of those breathtakingly frank exchanges at which Honoré’s cinema excels.

The tone of the film is uncomfortably intimate, and Homme au bain is also a movie that seems to invite all kinds of autobiographical readings. This is most notable in the New York scenes (shot on a mini DV camera by Honoré), where the line between fiction and documentary is totally blurred, in particular by Mastroianni’s presence (she’s appeared in every Honoré film since Les Chansons d’Amour) and the fact that the film that Omar is promoting appears to be Honoré ’s last film, Making Plans for Lena.

Easily Honoré’s most sexually provocative work since Ma mère (2004), the sex scenes here have a tendency to turn disturbing and violent, or else merge with the details of domesticity. Sometimes the effect is plain tiresome and sleazy, but, luckily, the director’s deadpan wit and insouciance come through at unexpected moments, especially in a hilarious sequence in which a minor character returns home to find Emmanuel comparing posteriors with his girlfriend - and doesn’t bat an eyelid. Also noteworthy is the use of music: there’s a little Charles Aznavour and a version of Kate Bush's “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” performed by three of the protagonists, while, early on, Sagat gets a spectacular solo dusting/dancing scene to “How Insensitive,” a sequence that almost rivals Romain Duris’s encounter with Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia” in Honoré’s Dans Paris (2006). And the striking final image is surprisingly poignant, encapsulating the air of melancholy, loneliness and regret that pervades the film and its characters.

Honoré's recent films have not fared well at the hands of UK distributors with both the likeable La Belle Personne (2008) and the stunning Lena remaining unreleased. Homme au bain certainly won’t be the movie to change that, and it’s unlikely to have much life at all beyond the festival circuit. Still, this intriguing and entirely unexpected little film is worth seeking out.

"My Cinematic Alphabet" Meme

Favourite film starting with each letter of the alphabet. Honestly, choosing between Home Alone, Howards End, Hidden and Hannah and her Sisters isn't easy.

Monday 11 April 2011

CD Review: Paper Airplane by Alison Krauss & Union Station (Rounder)

Although it’s been a lengthy seven years since the release of the last Alison Krauss & Union Station album, 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways, it can’t really be said that Krauss and her band-mates have rested on their laurels in the meantime. Dan Tyminski, Jerry Douglas, Ron Block and Barry Bales have all undertaken solo tours and involved themselves in other projects, while Krauss, of course, has seen her star continue to rise after collaborating with Robert Plant on a rather popular duet album in 2007. The long wait and the momentum generated by the massive success of Raising Sand in particular has made the band’s new record a highly anticipated event, and excitement about the release has been further fuelled by intimations in interviews that AKUS might be branching out in some new directions with Paper Airplane. “Everything we did separately found its way in [to the new record],” Krauss has been quoted as saying. “The more experiences we have, the wider our options are.”

Well, not exactly. In fact, Paper Airplane feels pretty much like an album that Krauss and co. could have produced at any point in the last twenty years. That’s probably reassuring news for many of the group’s fans, and it’s certainly true that the band’s bright, shiny brand of country and bluegrass, with its signature mixture of elegance and twang, remains both distinctive and appealing. But it may also explain why the album, while possessed of the usual AKUS virtues, is not, all in all, a tremendously exciting experience.

The sense that it’s business as usual for the group is confirmed by the album’s opening title track: a song by the band’s favourite go-to songwriter, Robert Lee Castleman. Intimate, reflective, its lyrics a mixture of the direct and the abstract, “Paper Airplane” is typical Castleman: a song that seems wispy and inconsequential initially but that gains resonance and depth with repeated plays. “Every silver lining always seems to have a cloud,” Krauss purrs, as the song builds slowly from a bare-bones instrumental opening to settle into an inviting rhythmic gait, with Douglas’s ever-sublime dobro work outstanding. It’s followed by a great take on Peter Rowan’s lament “Dust Bowl Children,” the first of three lead vocals for guitarist/mandolinist Tyminski that are among the album’s undisputed highlights. The intensity of the interaction between Tyminski’s keening vocal and Block’s banjo-playing is superb, and this is surely a number that will bring the house down in concert. Indeed, as much as the band function as a seamless and cohesive unit, it’s Tyminski who emerges as the star of Paper Airplane, at least vocally. There’s a drive and a dramatic verve to his delivery on Tim O’Brien’s “On the Outside Looking In” and “Bonita and Bill Butler” (a fine new track by Sidney Cox) that pulls the listener into the songs immediately.

Krauss musters this kind of force and conviction more fitfully, it must be said. Her silky lilt is at its best on the more fast-paced numbers, especially “Miles to Go,” which features some of the album’s loveliest harmonies, and “My Love Follows You Where You Go,” which she injects with genuine urgency and power. But the band’s take on one of Richard Thompson’s most exquisite songs, “Dimming of the Day,” fails to ignite as you might hope: it’s pretty but plodding and lacks real emotional heft. The jaunty, sweet rendering of “Lay My Burden Down” also misses the mark: again, Krauss’s vocal seems to skim the surface of the song here, never really connecting with the darkness of the lyrics; the result is merely bland. The moody, pensive “Lie Awake” and the delicate liberation-anthem “Sinking Stone” are decent enough, though not especially distinguished, but, happily, the band do better by Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell” which proves a beguiling closer to the record.

At a modest 11 tracks, only one of which exceeds the five minute mark, Paper Airplane certainly doesn’t risk outstaying its welcome; if anything the record feels excessively slight. Tasteful and professional, it’s a perfectly listenable collection that represents a pleasing enough addition to the AKUS catalogue. After such a long wait, however, you may find yourself wishing for something a little more surprising and substantial than what’s offered on this solid but overly familiar release.

Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.

Saturday 2 April 2011

Theatre Review: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Gielgud Theatre)

Emma Rice and Mike Shepherd’s Kneehigh company have excelled at re-imagining fairy-tales and classic films for the stage, presenting versions of The Red Shoes, Brief Encounter and A Matter of Life and Death to great acclaim. For the first time, the company have turned their attention to a French film: Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand’s gorgeous bittersweet musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). The results are wonderfully enjoyable. The story of the romance between a young couple, Guy and Genevieve, that’s complicated by separation when Guy is sent on a two year tour of combat in Algeria, the film is a dream of a musical, with its candy-coloured sets and costumes and innovative score by Legrand, not to mention the performances of Catherine Denueve and Nino Castelnuovo, both irresistible as the young lovers. In Kneehigh’s hands the source material becomes an equally glorious fusion of movement, dance, puppetry and song that goes beyond homage to carve out its own distinctive niche. This is a truly delectable production that delights and enchants from its opening moments, when Meow Meow’s Maîtresse clambers through the audience to take her place on stage, from where she serves as our guide to Cherbourg and its denizens. Observer and commentator, her character is the living embodiment of the spirit of the city, viewing the lovers’ travails with a mixture of warm compassion and ironic distance that feels exactly right for a narrative that combines romance and realism in equal measure.

As usual, Kneehigh opt for a highly stylised and eclectic approach to the material. But  the disparate elements are united by the strength of Rice’s vision; she adapted, directed and choreographed the show. The production boasts a brilliant set design by Lez Brotherston, beautiful lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, and it is wonderfully sung and performed by all, with Carly Bawden’s Genevieve, Andrew Durand's Guy, Joanna Riding’s Madame Emery and Cynthia Erivo’s Madeleine outstanding. It might be most fun for those who know Demy’s film and are already acquainted with the conversational rhythms and quirks of Legrand’s score, which offers only one instantly hummable number (the immortal “I Will Wait for You”) but which slowly, gradually works its way into the listener’s consciousness. Also of considerable interest is the artful manner in which Rice has woven references to other Demy/Legrand-associated works into the piece. Meow Meow’s Maîtresse is, it transpires, Lola, the titular heroine of Demy’s 1961 film, while the character’s show-stopping number, “Sans Toi,” is drawn from Cleo de 5 à 7, the 1962 film directed by Demy’s wife Agnès Varda, which Legrand also scored and appeared in. Such references give the production a delightful richness of texture for French film buffs, and I was particularly taken with a final visual flourish that transports the show right back into the world of film - and the audience back out onto the city streets.

But the production’s inclusive spirit of play and its lovely poignancy should win over all but the most cynical of audience members. Kneehigh’s conceits are endlessly (and for some tiresomely) "inventive," yet they never swamp the heart of the story, with its mature and thoroughly clear-eyed appraisal of a youthful romance. As our marvellous Maîtresse reminds us: “We are learning the language. Of love.”

Official website here.

Friday 1 April 2011

Essential Killing (again)

Out today in UK cinemas, Jerzy Skolimowski's essential Essential Killing. Do go. Here's the link to my original review.