Thursday, 23 December 2010

Film Review: Somewhere (2010)

Following the visually stunning but otherwise uninspired and bemusing Marie Antoinette (2006) Sofia Coppola returns with Somewhere, a consciously and predominantly unexciting glimpse at celebrity culture focusing on a father-daughter relationship and ruminating on themes of identity and materialism. The similarities to Lost in Translation (2003) are immediately noticeable, as if Coppola deliberately set out to capitalize on the success of her most acclaimed film by mining the same topical and stylistic field, but Somewhere is a much more mature and complex film and one that will undoubtedly split audience opinions even more starkly.

Less of a sequel to Lost In Translation and more of a hypothetical prequel to Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984), Somewhere is low on dialogue, instead favoring long languorous shots that leave the audience to fill in the silent blanks. Stephen Dorff plays Johnny Marco, a Hollywood Actor whiling his days away at L.A.'s notorious Chateau Marmont but whose privileged yet lonely lifestyle is disrupted when his daughter Cleo, played expertly here by the young Elle Fanning, is left for him to look after by her mother. Cleo's presence forces Johnny to re-examine his behavior, duties and position within life but as with Lost In Translation, Coppola offers no definite conclusions or overt character arcs in this self-confessed partially autobiographical tranche de vie.

This is less of a character study, bearing in mind that Johnny is mostly presented as a two-dimensional anti-hero who rarely has anything to say, and more of a study on mood. Every aspect of this film, from mise-en-scene to the soundtrack, is constructed in such a way to communicate to the audience thoughts and ideas that not only go beyond the scarce dialogue, but beyond the diegesis of the film itself. Coppola has truly come into her own as a filmmaker and begs to be examined as a serious auteur. While taking influence from the Italian neo-realists in terms of style the characters here are privileged and wealthy rather than working class but she imbues the existentially nihilistic world in which Johnny inhabits with a potentially redeeming humanist core.

Like Johnny, seen driving his Ferrari alone on a circular race track in the opening shot of the film, we are all trapped to a certain extent by the circumstances surrounding our own personal existence and the trajectory in which we build momentum in our lives. We all want to be someone, we all want to feel like we're headed somewhere, but do we really know where we're going and what tangible or intangible form of happiness, if any, lies at the end of the road? Coppola asks these questions through the macho American cardboard cutout of a character that she has created as her satirical puppet and whom we are unlikely to feel much sympathy for.

In one scene Johnny's head is cocooned within a plaster mold for the purposes of a special effect for a new film he's starring in, and as he sits on his own waiting for the mold to dry with only two nostril holes through which to breathe, the camera completes an excruciatingly slow zoom to close-up, highlighting not only his isolation but the absurdity of the process itself, the culmination of which is a prosthesis designed to age his appearance, and in seeing himself as an old man in the next shot he is faced with the notion of his own mortality, something which he no doubt attempts to distract himself from through sex, drugs and money. In Cleo, Johnny is confronted with the antithesis to his empty, materialist, lifestyle and yet she herself is partially enticed and excited by it and the film does flirt with excess on occasion, never painting things entirely in black and white. There are no grand incidents that occur, no sweeping climaxes; two characters cry in separate scenes but both moments lack full closure, and the film itself ends on a vague denouement that's left open to interpretation.

To call this film self-indulgent would be rather accurate; as the daughter of one of cinema's most influential and acclaimed directors, [Sofia] Coppola operates self reflexively, and whether or not you choose to engage with the subject matter, which invites deeper reading, it is impossible to ignore the masterful filmmaking displayed here. With Somewhere, Coppola became the first American woman to win the Golden Lion, the top prize at the long running and prestigious Venice Film Festival; I greatly look forward to seeing where she goes from here.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Spotlight On: Astrobrite

Astrobrite are an American shoegaze/noise pop band that began as a solo project for musician Scott Cortez (of Lovesliescrushing), expanding into a full band in 1993. The band toured and released a number of cassette EPs before going on hiatus in 1997. They returned in 2001 with their first full-length album, the stunning Crush, and have released two more LPs since then. Their sound owes quite a lot to My Bloody Valentine, with the same pop sensibility buried under layers of hazy noise. Check out this gorgeous track from Crush and be prepared to fall in love:

Monday, 6 December 2010

My Top 10 albums of 2010

1) Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz

Sufjan Stevens returned this year with his first song-based album since 2005's critically acclaimed Illinois, a bold and breathtaking work of intense beauty and unbridled creativity. Stevens opens the album with a short stripped-back folk song about unrequited love which comes to rest on the conclusion that, in this case, "words are futile devices." What follows is an epic journey into Stevens' conscious, exploring loss of love, existential woes, religious faith and physical and mental illness, with inspiration taken from the artwork of schizophrenic self-proclaimed prophet Royal Robertson, which is featured in the cover art. The album's sound is quite difficult to describe; imagine giant steam-powered robots from outer space invading the Earth while Sufjan's disembodied voice floats through the atmosphere as a huge classical orchestra provides a suitably thundering, apocalyptic soundtrack. I can't recommend this album enough, it's a towering achievement and easily the most accomplished release of the year.

2) Twin Shadow - Forget

On this, his debut LP (produced by Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor), George Lewis Jr. pares down core elements of 80s New Wave, disco, indie rock and R&B into a slick and meticulous album about lost youth and nostalgia.

3) The National - High Violet

The National continue to hone their mature sound; lead singer Matt Berninger's lyrics are more creative and compelling than ever and the band reach epic levels of haunting beauty.

4) LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening

James Murphy and co. release another post-punk inspired electro gem rife with fearless energy and colored by Murphy's charming wit.

Listen to I Can Change by LCD Soundsystem

5) The Walkmen - Lisbon

The Walkmen follow up 2008's dark and moody You & Me with a musically more upbeat and energetic album, but singer Hamilton Leithauser sounds as wounded as ever, though there seems to be a reassurance in his voice this time around that makes it seem as if things are just fine either way.

Listen to Angel Surf City by The Walkmen

6) Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Arcade Fire's most epic album yet, a sprawling dystopic vision of cultural decay that samples a wide variety of retro genres.

Listen to We Used To Wait by Arcade Fire

7) Titus Andronicus - The Moniter

A boisterous and exhilarating rock record about modern discontent and the Civil War from this band from Glen Rock, New Jersey.

Listen to A More Perfect Union by Titus Andronicus

8) Menomena - Mines

A more emotionally driven album than any of their previous work, but one that retains their quirky and schizophrenic compositional style.

Listen to Dirty Cartoons by Menomena

9) The Books - The Way Out

The first album in five years from the American duo who create acoustic compositions on guitar and cello and cut them up with various samples and found recordings. This is by far their most ambitious, creative and yet easily palatable work yet.

Listen to Beautiful People by The Books

10) Spoon - Transference

Another slick release from these indie rock veterans, generally more sparse and minimal than their previous efforts; tracks like Who Makes Your Money have a real tight swagger and subtle atmospheric production elements add to the concise songwriting.

Listen to The Mystery Zone by Spoon

Also considered:

Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

No Age - Everything In Between
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Frog Eyes - Paul's Tomb: A Triumph
Black Keys - Brothers
Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Dreamend - So I Ate Myself Bite By Bite
Xiu Xiu - Dear God I Hate Myself

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Spotlight On: Henry's Dress

Henry's Dress were a lo-fi noise pop trio hailing from Albuquerque, New Mexico, signed to Slumberland Records and only officially active for three years between 1993 and 1996. In that time they released a few split singles with Flake, Tiger Trap and Rocketship, (whom they also toured with) as well as releasing one full length LP titled Bust 'Em Green. The band consisted of singer/guitarist Amy Linton, singer/guitarist/drummer Matt Hartman and bassist Hayyim Sanchez. Following the band's dissolution, Linton went on to front Aisler's Set, another great band worth looking up, and Hartman is currently part of Sic Alps. I highly recommend checking out Henry's Dress, especially their energetic LP Bust 'Em Green. Listen to one of the songs from the album below and head on over to their myspace page:

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Album Review: Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

There's nothing particularly dark or twisted about this latest offering from Kanye West, the follow up to the underrated 808s And Heartbreak, instead My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an overlong, overblown and outrageously self-indulgent hip hop odyssey turned electro glam rock opera about broken relationships, the emptiness of hedonistic living and modern celebrity culture, and of course, West himself. Your enjoyment of this album will really depend on whether or not you can handle his self-referential egotistical ramblings, but either way the production on here is almost faultless, apart from its excess, with an extensive list of collaborators and guests. There are some great tracks on here, including the standout single Monster featuring a superb performance from Nicki Minaj. Some though, like Runaway and Blame Game, just meander and overstay their welcome. West does a lot more rapping than singing on here following the flak he received for his auto-tuned crooning on 808s, and when he's not blowing up tracks with too many effects or getting sidetracked with superfluous instrumental sections or extended outros the output is highly engaging, such as on the aforementioned Monster and So Appalled, which features Jay-Z, Pusha T, Prynce Cy Hi, Swizz Beatz & The RZA. It's difficult to deny the effort that's clearly gone into this album, but a little more focus and restraint would have made it easier to sit through and unless you're still an unwavering Kanye West fan and supporter you may find this album a little too much Kanye to handle. Check out Monster below:

Friday, 3 December 2010

Album Review: Coma Cinema - Blue Suicide

Coma Cinema is the brainchild of South Carolina musician Mat Cothran who has self-recorded two albums since he began writing and performing under the moniker in 2005, and Blue Suicide is his third album set for release in early 2011.

The sound of Coma Cinema is a little difficult to solidly categorize, it's easiest perhaps to just label it as North American indie but just like similar genre-busting acts like Beulah or Wilco have done for themselves, Cothran manages to squeeze quite a wide variety of influences and different elements into the fifteen tracks that make up Blue Suicide, from chamber pop to slowcore. The fact that all of these tracks in total only just break the half an hour mark is surprising; Cothran condenses so many ideas into concise songs where every lyric and every note serves an immediate purpose and no track overstays its welcome or even lingers for a second too long. The lyrics themselves are mostly quite melancholy, bleak or downright morbid, delivered in Cothran's high-pitched, stark voice atop upbeat compositions with strong melodies and simple rhyme-schemes, making them sound like nursery rhymes about manic depression. The lyrics themselves are at times dream-like in their bizarre nature, such as on 'Lindsey' which launches immediately into the first verse as Cothran wails "Frozen dog/Hanging by a chain over the fire in the yard/Oh my god/Little bones that break and free me from my haunted hell/Sing your simple shyness pretty heart." Things slow down a little when Cothran adopts a more dour tone to match the subject matter, such as on 'Greater Vultures' and 'Her Sinking Sun,' and on these tracks he even sounds a little like Sparklehorse.

Blue Suicide is an easy album to recommend; it's brimming full of creativity and talent, showcasing Cothran's strong, offbeat song-craft, and just like his previous two albums it will be released for free on his official website. Check out 'Her Sinking Sun' below and the link to the Coma Cinema website:

Album Review: Weekend - Sports

Sports is the debut album by San Fransisco band Weekend, formed in late 2009 and signed to Slumberland Records (the same label that put out such great bands as Lilys and Black Tambourine in the early 90s) the trio offer up 11 tracks of post-punk noise that sounds best when they're not simultaneously ripping off Joy Division and The Jesus And Mary Chain.

Opening track and first single 'Coma Summer' is a completely blissed-out slice of distorted feedback-howling shoegaze pop, propelled by a pounding beat enveloped in dangerously reverberating vocals and guitars that sound like buzz saws threatening to tear away at your ears as lead singer Shaun Durkan casually sings "I awoke from a coma summer/And I found you/I awoke from a coma summer/Tell me you're true." It's so perfect in its eargasm-inducing sensory overload that the album blows its load too soon and never reaches the same gratifying peak across the remaining forty minutes. Durkan puts on his best Ian Curtis impression for second track 'Youth Haunts,' but as is the case with much of the album the buried vocals lose some of their impact when they are not tethered to a strong melody. 'Coma Summer' works so brilliantly because the contrasting elements create a cohesive balance that's instantly engaging and engrossing, and the only other track on here that comes close to reaching the same level of compositional harmony is 'End Times,' with its catchy bass riff and strong vocal hook riding a steady rhythm as waves of guitar noise swell into each other underneath. 'Monday Morning' is a great drone piece that could have been expanded; I'd definitely like to see the band do more of this, and 'Monongah, WV' takes drone influences and successfully injects them into a rousing punk number. Apart from these aforementioned highlights the album is quite a murky, disjointed affair that could have benefited from stronger production but nonetheless, the highlights are so good that I would still recommend it and I greatly look forward to the band's future output. Check out 'Coma Summer' below and be prepared to put it on repeat: