Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Album of the Month: INTOXICATED WOMEN by Mick Harvey

You know how sometimes an artist tells you that fame doesn't mean anything and you just roll your eyes. Oh please. In one of my favourite stories from Martin Amis's Experience, the author gets asked by his son if he would agree to have written everything he has but with no fame attached. To which Amis says, well, 'what would be the point of that?' With years you come to realise that there's no cynicism in his answer. That's just the way it is. 

Which makes it all the more exciting to say that Mick Harvey doesn't care about fame. Never has. You can watch any old footage of him alongside Nick Cave or Blixa Bargeld to know that. Mick Harvey has always been this amazingly talented man who just wanted to be there. To play whichever instrument he chose to play. To produce. To write. To interpret. But mostly - to just be part of world's creative process.     

This album is the fourth, and final, installment of Harvey's interpretations of Serge Gainbourg's music. There was Intoxicated Man back in 1995. Pink Elephants in 1997. Delirium Tremens last year. All brilliant, all brimming with erotic understatement and melodic sensibilities that Gainsbourg made his name on. 

Now it's Intoxicated Women and we kick off with a German take on "Je t'aime... moi non plus". 

Seconds in, you get reminded that Mick Harvey is the perfect interpreter of Serge Gainsbourg. He imagines the great Frenchman as a folk balladeer ("PrĂ©vert's Song"), religious provocateur ("God Smokes Havanas"), salacious seducer ("Striptease"), decadent romantic ("The Drowned One") and quite simply one of the best songwriters of his time ("Sensuelle et Sans Suite" is morning coffee, pure sex, a favourite cocktail you drank last night). 

Intoxicated Women has barely been noticed by critics and audiences alike. Normally, I would be going mad about great talents getting so little recognition (mind, Delirium Tremens was one of the best albums of 2016), but in Mick Harvey's case it's just a great artist doing great art. No more and no less. Intoxicated Women is fantastic no matter how many people get to hear it and no matter what fame says. It's the best album of January, easily. 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

La La Land

this review is dedicated to the memory of 
Emmanuelle Riva who died earlier today

My sore throat is burning and my mind is still reeling from La La Land. Christ it's one of those reviews where you don't even know where to begin. It's all so overwhelming you have to get distracted for a minute or two. But then, gradually, your mind starts jumping all over yesterday's experience (scratchy vinyl, restless needle, that sort of thing) and picks out one particular conversation. 

Naturally, it's a conversation about jazz. One character is saying that jazz has to be the music of the future, the way it was back in late 50s and early 60s. People like Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane pushed jazz into whichever direction they chose, creating something exceptional in the process. The question that arises here is how you achieve that. This character, a young jazzman of the most repulsive sort, has no intention of doing anything new. Rather, he is going for that cowardly option of adapting to the modern times. It's a flawed option, of course, and the film will try to confirm that, but oh the irony. 

Two years ago, Damien Chazelle made Whiplash, one of my absolute favourite films in recent years. I could go on for hours about all those things Whiplash did well, but in this particular review I will say what that film did not do: Whiplash never tried to sell jazz cheap. 

La La Land does just that.  

Ryan Gosling, usually a good actor (Drive, The Ides Of March), is a hologram in La La Land. He doesn't do anything, he's just there. Emma Stone acts her guts out (arguably trying too hard in a few places), but Gosling only comes alive in the amusing 'bite your lip' scene. Obviously it doesn't help that his character is an embarrassing caricature, a hackneyed stereotype of a jazz fan that will no doubt make you cringe half the time. 

Which brings me to the point that seems completely inescapable: there is no chemistry between the characters of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. There is no emotional connection. They are just two random people who happen to inhabit the screen and the beautiful landscape at more or less the same time. And for a musical about love, that's a fatal flaw.

When I say 'fatal', I do of course realise that I'm in desperate minority as everyone and their grandmother loved La La Land. Granted, a woman to the right of me fell asleep at some point in the frankly vapid middle section of the film, but there were people screaming with joy and clapping themselves into fits. And how do you say that millions of people are wrong? You don't just tell them that style isn't everything and neither is technical brilliance.

To me, the film did that most heinous thing a work of art can do: it was trying so hard to be liked. Every second of it. As one critic put it, this film is like a dog. It will do whatever you want to get a biscuit. It will be warm and it will be cuddly. It will be that big Hollywood movie about Hollywood. And for what? For empty posturing? For tedious dialogues? For a half-baked plot? For a cliched story that only last year, in 2016, was done so much better in Woody Allen's decidedly non-classic Cafe Society

Speaking of cafes, there's one that I go to quite often these days. I drink coffee, I look at people and I write. Usually, the music here is great, ranging from Glenn Miller to Bill Evans to Nick Cave. However, yesterday the owner's daughter brought her new iPhone and started blasting the soundtrack of La La Land all through the place. It was so loud I was losing my focus. A few people, who were finding it increasingly hard to communicate, said oh that's right, this music is fantastic and it's from the amazing La La Land

It was just so random and inconsequential. Then I watched them get back to their lattes and their cappuccinos and thought of that place in Southern California where they 'worship everything and value nothing'. 

Sunday, 22 January 2017

travelling notes (xvi)

The only thing more disgusting than a local citizen boasting of the greatness of his city is a beautiful girl who understands the full extent of her beauty.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

At the Existentialist Cafe

Black coffee, Coltrane's "Blue Train" and the underground. Three things I will be reminded of each time I think about this book.

At some dodgy post-Soviet conference a young man was trying to present a University thesis on existentialism. To put it bluntly, it was not a great presentation. The young man was clearly gripped by the subject, but his speech and his manners were horribly inarticulate. In fact, he could barely pronounce the word 'existentialism'. He gnawed at the term, he chewed it, he swallowed two syllables at a time. The young man had long wavy hair flapping to a wind that wasn't there, and it looked like he may have been a closet drug addict. One part of me wanted to believe he was some sort of unrecognised genius. The other part of me knew better: the young man had no idea what he was talking about. 

Time and time again I have seen this. Vulnerable young people fluttering about the 'mystery' and 'despair' of Camus, never quite getting to the point. Never quite getting the point. Quoting Kierkegaard and not walking down the Danish streets the hungry, slovenly way that he did. Name-dropping Heidegger like it's some sort of epiphany. Putting all the effort into philosophy and not the apricot cocktail that spawned it.   

At The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails is one of the greatest, most lovingly and beautifully written books in recent memory. It's powerful, personal stuff. There are those who might wonder why anyone would feel the need to mention Simone de Beauvoir in the year 2016. But in truth - there has never been a time more appropriate than this. If anything, Sarah Bakewell's book has come a little too late. At a time when we have already lost the ability to shed the epoche and experience the world in its pure existential greatness. At the risk of sounding like some hopeless curmudgeon desperately out of loop, it's next time you talk to someone who then takes out his mobile phone carving your mid-sentence open.

Existentialists may have been a random, disagreeing bunch (it's enthralling to read about the mental see-saw between Husserl and Heidegger), but it's that certain fullness of being (or, indeed, Being) that you find in almost all of their works and even lives. From Camus's acceptance of absurdity and the ability to move on with life to Beauvoir's fascinating desire to taste every fine object around her. So rest assured, these times would have horrified Sartre. Because it's a little bit of this and a little bit of that and never quite the whole thing. Imagine if you had a lover whom you could never kiss full on the mouth. A peck on the cheek, a bite on the neck, a nibble on the lips - but a million worthless distractions would never allow you to plunge full on. Or to see why many great-looking Frenchwomen were taken with a man having such a disturbing look in his eyes (notwithstanding the delicious Camembert cheese that he used to have in the periods of great privation).

It is the lack of process he would decry. The absence of spiritual freedom constrained by a million small concerns and offences. This lack of ability to describe a world full of fascinating things, never mind show. Never mind enjoy. And, crucially, filter it through your own unique existence. For existentialism is powerful, personal stuff - but who would care anymore, except for those who can not see past an existential crisis? One that always has to be resolved? And how! Camus, remembers Simone de Beauvoir, was 'so emotional that he would sit down in the snow in the street at 2 a.m. and pour out his love troubles'.

Read this book. Or maybe don't read this book. But do make sure that next time you are walking down the street, turn around, do a complete circle, and carry on walking. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

Minus 283 degrees Centigrade

Oh Christ. Best thing about Robyn Hitchcock is that he can literally end a song that way and it wouldn't feel forced. And it's not even the best line here. The people in the background are good, too. The old-fashioned buses. The bloke with no hand. Ghastly mellow saxophones.