31 March, 2008

The Hawk In The Rain

As promised, I've learnt a poem by Ted Hughes this week:

I drown in the drumming ploughland, I drag up
Heel after heel from the swallowing of the earth's mouth,
From clay that clutches my each step to the ankle
With the habit of the dogged grave, but the hawk

Effortlessly at height hangs his still eye.
His wings hold all creation in a weightless quiet,
Steady as a hallucination in the streaming air.
While banging wind kills these stubborn hedges,

Thumbs my eyes, throws my breath, tackles my heart,
And rain hacks my head to the bone, the hawk hangs,
The diamond point of will that polestars
The sea drowner's endurance: And I,

Bloodily grabbed dazed last-moment-counting
Morsel in the earth's mouth, strain to the master-
Fulcrum of violence where the hawk hangs still.
That maybe in his own time meets the weather

Coming the wrong way, suffers the air, hurled upside-down,
Fall from his eye, the ponderous shires crash on him,
The horizon trap him; the round angelic eye
Smashed, mix his heart's blood with the mire of the land.
Ted Hughes

Overall, I've really enjoyed reading Hughes' poems. "Pike" and "The Shot" also became favourites. I'll certainly be seeking out more of his work.

Also, happily, it didn't prove too hard to remember these 20 lines. I had no idea how easy/tricky it would be, but I typed this out from memory, needing to correct only a couple of bits of punctuation.

This week I'll be learning a bit of Shakespeare; how could I take interest in poetry without having a look at the classics?

29 March, 2008

TV Party

How on earth does Peter Krause manage it? The first ten minutes of Six Feet Under displayed his character Nate getting intimate with a nameless woman in an airport cupboard. Meanwhile, his dad had just died in a hearse-crash, and Nate and his new acquaintance must face his highly-strung mother and his sister, who’s just plain high. Sex, death and crystal meth within twelve minutes. Of course, before the pilot ended we got a gay love scene too.

So Krause, this time as lawyer Nick George, has a knack for getting involved with messy families, as evidenced by the first episodes of Dirty Sexy Money. His dad just died in a plane crash, and Nick’s been called upon to take his old job, as family lawyer and general dogsbody for uber-wealthy, dysfunctional New York family the Darlings.

On this occasion though, it’s out with philosophy and in with debit card glamour.

It’s a wild ride as Nick desperately seeks a non-existent balance point between his own life (He’s found himself another ridiculously sexy girlfriend), and those of the other six people he must now babysit. As viewers we revel in the Darling’s decadence, their absurd materialism and moral corruption.

We feel more at home to find the Darlings are anchored by patriarch Donald Sutherland, and count William Baldwin and Samaire Armstrong (The O.C.!) among their numbers. Transexual prostitutes, affairs and an illegitimate son born to a clergyman ensure there’s plenty on Nick’s plate.

Indeed, we’d come to feel bad about it if it wasn’t all so tongue-in-cheek. Maybe that makes it less satisfying than the real deal, that we really wish we were watching. It’s fun, at times uproarious, but obviously lightweight fluff. The young(ish) part of the cast bring limo-loads of energy, in combination with the daft plotlines, while Sutherland veers between deft tone-setting and plain senility.

You’ll want to like Dirty Sexy Money, for its energy and simplicity, and it’s possible to really disengage the brain and enjoy this frothy, high-calorie nonsense. Just don’t expect to feel full afterwards.


“You’re the best,” declares the patient. “You break the rules, and you don’t care about anyone but yourself.” Of course, the maverick physician can only be Gregory House. And Hugh ‘unloved in Britain’ Laurie’s show returns to our screens for a fourth series, as grouchy, cynical and over-the-top as ever.

Having dismissed his staff at the end of series 3, House must whittle 40-odd applicants down to a new trio. While, obviously, watching House save the day, we can play a fun guessing game, trying to spot those final three.

Be that by spotting familiar faces (Anne Dudek of The Book Group and Mad Men?), or deepening characterization (The foreign chick? The old guy? The black dude?), it’s a fun distraction for when Laurie isn’t on the screen. Naturally, when he is, he steals the show.

Sadly, House’s writers have continued that disturbing trend of thinking-out-loud through the characters from series 3 to series 4. It’s catching and it sometimes brings you back to earth with a jolt. This is, after all, pretty silly, and getting to feel mass-produced.

But, like Dirty Sexy Money, it still charms. Yet more proof that good TV doesn’t always have to be art.

24 March, 2008

Poet in the Pit - One-a-Week

In my unrelenting (!) quest to better myself I've seized upon someone else's initiative. It's not an original idea but it appeals to me: I'm going to learn one poem a week until my head can hold no more.

By learn, I guess I mean off by heart, verbatim. Certainly if I choose a poem on Monday or Tuesday I anticipate I should be able to remember it pretty much perfectly on Sunday. But I'll place more importance on enjoying or comprehending it.

I won't lie though, I'd like to be one of those smarmy people who can pull a verse from mid-air seemingly effortlessly.

I guess I'll be setting myself three main targets;
  • Firstly, I want to read poetry by a variety of different poets, hopefully from different backgrounds as well. Therefore I'm going to try and dot around from week to week, and cover a fair number of famous ones, as well as getting a sense of the depth of the art-form.
  • Secondly, for each poet I intend to learn a favourite one, but also to read around it, to get a sense of the poet's overall work, and the context within which he wrote.
  • Thirdly, I hope I'm going to be able to understand the words I'm learning as well as just liking the sound of them. I'd expect I won't get it straight away, but after a few weeks of exposing myself to verse, I might have a better and more immediate feel for poetry, and especially its meaning.
So here goes. On the afternoon of the 24th of March, 2008, I undertake this mission. Obviously I'll be posting here with the poems I'm learning and how it's all going. My first poet will be Ted Hughes (I won't lie, those free poetry pamphlets in the papers last week will help!).

Wish me luck!

18 March, 2008

"The Ghostly Apples Tea Drinking Show" - Phantom Dog Beneath The Moon, Les Étoiles, The Anvil, 14/03/08

Have you ever been into Nottingham city centre on a Friday night? It's carnage. Nottingham's a classic example of the new urban frontier town, where the forces of sobriety and temperance clash with the forces of drunkenness and disruliness, nightly.

So you'd have to cast yor net pretty far to find a case of greater contrast, then, than that between Lee Rosy's tea rooms and its surroundings. There aren't many chairs, but it's still hugely comfy inside for this low-key free gig.

The crowd stumble in from the cold in coats and promptly sweat profusely once they start on the first cups of tea. Thirty people can make the place seem quite packed, not least in front of the "stage," which first sees The Anvil, the project of Nottingham's Matthew Fullwood, take to the sweetly-smelling wooden boards.

You couldn't want a much more warming sound to kick off. One could listen to this folky, psychedelic set forever, quite happily. Bringing to mind a more contented Six Organs of Admittance, or a more organic Animal Collective, or Jesu bent through a singer-songwriter's lens, there are plenty of nodding heads by the time Matthew's finished; definitely a hit.

I was chiefly present to see the second act, Les Étoiles. This pseudonym is the mask of David Fitzpatrick, whose album Never To Alight is one of the big must-hears on nascent music label Records on Ribs. The album features some of the most intimate songs I feel I've ever heard, and is touching and mournful in equal measure.

The live experience is not quite as perfect as it is recorded. The delicate instrumental additions are absent, and the delivery of lines is endearingly, but just overly, wavering. But this really is quibbling, as the audience, which previously had been wandering in and out liberally, is held rapt. I'm desperate to hold my breath, to not break the spell, or the magic that delicately holds each piece together. Embraced tenderly by each word, the aftertaste is haunting.

It's one of the hardest acts you could follow. Phantom Dog Beneath The Moon are gamely up for the task, and although we're all tanked up on Almond Cream tea by this late stage of proceedings, and thus quite full and tiring, there's a huge degree of goodwill in the air. After all, vocalist Aaron put the night together and the duo have it in them to finish it all off brilliantly.

Various things aren't right here. The vocals can be a challenging listen, the songs are often introduced with a number of words, the acoustic guitar crescendos can seem obvious. But in this case it hangs together extremely well. Those introductions are evocative and deeply personal. The crescendos are accompanied by rasping additions on the cello, while Aaron can intone lyrics or shift towards an anguished, plaintive voice of surprising power.

The melodies are at once simple and powerful, lent strength by the poweful symbiosis of the two men; their musical understanding seems effortless. The opening songs are haunting, breathy and bitter-sweet. As the set grows, so do the songs, as the last two pieces end loud and make you sit up. It's not unlike a transition from folk to Radiohead, though not quite.

All those things I initially doubt are blended into a quite perfect final set, and as we troop back out into the foul-smelling, unwelcoming cold, we're all quite content.

Like all Records on Ribs releases, Les Étoiles' album "Never To Alight" is available as a free download. Phantom Dog are on the Rusted Rail label and have released an EP, "Through a Forest Only." Releases by The Anvil are available at Woven Wheat Whispers.

14 March, 2008

Humanity and Paper Balloons

Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) is a touching period piece following the exploits of two men in 18th century feudal Japan. Unno is a masterless samurai, a ronin, who is desperate to find work and restore his name and honour. Shinza is a barber, and a cheeky rulebreaker and schemer, who seeks better and hasn't quite worked out how to get it.

Set in what's now Tokyo, most of the characters live in a slum, where the scene opens with the residents discussing an off-screen suicide, by a dishonoured samurai who had lived among them. We're gradually introduced to the residents, their pompous landlord, and the hierarchy beyond the ghetto, where a gang of local men hold immediate authority.

The owners and workers of a nearby pawn shop are better off, while master Mori, the leader of the samurai clan, is a respected figure, in charge of the well-being and wedding of a noble's daughter. It is he Unno must beg for a fresh shot at honour and employment, and observing his deferral in the face of such rejection is heartbreaking.

While Unno battles with the temptation to take refuge in drink, Shinza is causing trouble for himself, hosting gambling games and continually on the run from the local gangs. The audience naturally comes to like Shinza, a daring young man of good nature and sharp wit. Eventually, from about halfway through the film, he takes his daring further than before, kidnapping the bride-to-be, and conspiring with Unno to hold her, seeking the pride and honour that will come from role-reversal, should the governor come and beg him for a change.

Filmed in 1937 and released on the very day its director Sadao Yamanaka was drafted into military service, during which he died, less than a year later, Humanity and Paper Balloons is a tragicomedic film. Warmly humourous character observations are peppered through the film, with true good feeling piercing through the difficult conditions the poor tenants endure. The landlord brings a dose of bustling levity, as does the blind man whose senses are so sharp the other tenants swear he can really see.

Ultimately a sad, but not depressing, film, Humanity and Paper Balloons is shot beautifully. Sets look wonderful, scenes are composed as delicate tableaus, to give a tremendous sense of historic Japan. Yamanaka balances these works in light against the struggle of the everyday people, portraying a society where poverty isn't a disaster, but dishonour is. From the very opening scene we get the feeling that Unno's fate hangs over him very heavily indeed.

A tragedy, really, that only three of Yamanaka's films survive to this day. Even more awful to think, if he made 30 before his death at age 29, quite how much more beauty he may have had to contribute to the world.

Humanity and Paper Balloons offers little entertainment to a general modern, western audience. But if we can put aside the pace and characterisation, slow compared to that to which we are accustomed, and immerse ourselves in the beautiful compositions put before us and the tenderness of the tale, there's plenty of pleasure to be derived here, in a story that's passed off as small-time and incidental but tells us more about Japanese culture, past and present, than we might expect.

Just The Architect

If I may, I'd like to bend your ear briefly, to vouch for the music of a talented man. Just The Architect is the project of one Johnathan Chan, who arms himself (not necessarily) nightly with guitar, keyboard and violin to do battle with those creative urges.

Now, I'll have to be honest, I've known Chan a little while and been hearing his creations for almost as long. I was fortunate enough to see "Aky and the Architect" play an ultra-exclusive set (!) and they sounded great. I'd have to say, though, that it's only just lately I've realised that no-one's playing at music here...

A quick list of comparisons would have to include Final Fantasy, Patrick Wolf, The Decemberists, Grizzly Bear and Bat for Lashes, though obviously influences don't stop there. And Chan'd be among the first to admit he's worn his influences on his sleeve at times; a personal favourite, Melodrama, shimmers and rips with Owen Pallett-worshipping violin, while Avast!'s lyrics are hitting upon ground familiar to fans of Pallett or Meloy, thematically at least.

Well, easy to say, but this is no one trick pony. For starters, the vocals are only a recent addition to JTA's repertoire, and they've begun to add new dimensions, to say the least. Transmuting trans-atlantic influences with a mediating British accent, Chan with vocals is a whole different beast on tracks like BC and Tinseltown Tongues, which are led by choral intonations.

Being lulled and soothed is one thing, but to be shaken up by Cadet Force is even a step further; these don't just demonstrate a voice, but even more a compositional step beyond influences into uncharted territory. On Tiger Vs World, with an incredible chanted transition, we literally hear JTA snarl for the first time.

It's obviously come full circle when you take in Fields; the strong violin part's still there to get us going, but more than that, the track progresses in its very own way as we first flirt with minimalism, then a low, swelling, pulse which evokes some form of otherworldly nature documentary, less Boards of Canada than American Gothic.

If this feels a bit less snug, the difference is rejuvenating. By the time we get round to his remix of Scott Davis' Rise, we're hitting the depths of melancholy as Chan lends terrifically sensitive touch to the subject. For my money, it's one of his best efforts so far.

I won't claim JTA's material is all perfect, but then, I don't think it's hit its heights yet. Some tracks come on a bit strong, while others hold out too much. It can hardly be an easy equilibrium to reach. Regardless, there's something special about hearing a musician (especially someone you know) steal away from their influences, bit by bit, and striking out their own notes.

Whether it's with creepy minimalist compositions, deftly handled remixes, or lo-fi alt-pop songs, I have a feeling Just The Architect will before too long come fully into its own, and that could be absolutely terrific.

Between Myspace and Last.fm, virtually all the tracks mentioned are freely listenable/downloadable.

09 March, 2008

No Country For Old Men

I was conflicted while approaching this film. Is it the new piece by the Coen brothers, or is it the recent Best Picture oscar-winner? Is there even a significant distinction to be drawn between the two?

In a study in coincidence and injustice, the set-up is the cat-and-mouse chase between an innocent everyman who stumbles across a fortune (Josh Brolin), and a maniacal killer, Chigurh, who doesn't follow the expected Hollywood morality for maniacal killers (Javier Bardem).

Don't be drawn in. Neither of these are the lead role. In fact, many events are perceived through the eyes of a retiring sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones). It's through his eyes we assess the rough injustice of the Tex-Mex border region, and ask ourselves if this dark world is as devoid of God as it is seemingly devoid of morality.

These lead roles are truly crucial to the piece; a lesser actor in Jones' place might lead us to wonder whether the film had any meaning whatsoever, while Brolin balances hope, greed, and desperation on a fine knife-edge throughout.

Meanwhile, Bardem astounds. His role is the absolute centre of the work, which at its core is hugely violent. Two grotesque murders await us before any plot has even been divulged. They're so grotesque they conduct the thoughts of both the lead and the audience throughout. Each time Bardem enters a scene he infuses the entire film with a sense of dread.

Chigurh redoubles already unbearable tension with his belief in fate and attitude to justice, so alien to a western audience that he becomes a complete black box. He both enacts and holds to such a belief in fate that we too question whether anyone else can ultimately triumph.

The three main characters dance an intimate and delicate waltz throughout the film. Scene by scene, they never seal each other's fates as we'd expect, but instead, under the guidance of the Coens, weave a web of chance encounter and suspense, that holds us rapt throughout.

The Coens paint a bleak, harsh landscape, of a country that has no regard for our expectations of justice, decency, or even self-determination. Scene by scene they tease out a nervous humour and a thoroughly unconventional narrative, combining it with as masterful direction and cinematography as you'd come to expect from the duo, until regardless of how happy you feel about it, you can't doubt you're watching something truly remarkable.

Chris Leo @ The Maze, Nottingham, 07-03-08

This fellow was really great, excellent lyrics, engaging songwriting. If you can wade through a lot of reading, you can find out more about Chris Leo, probably starting here.