Thursday, July 29, 2010

Frontier Blues

Due out on 30 July in the UK, the indie film Frontier Blues is the debut feature from Babak Jalali. Set in his native Iran along the northern border with Turkmenistan, the film is an absurdist meditation on loss and getting on with life. Four male characters are the leads and the film often alludes to the absence of women from their lives without ever really explaining how this came to be.

I wondered at the meaning myself: is the filmmaker commenting on the lack of visibility of women in Iran, or in his own life, or does it have some other meaning?

The characters are not especially sympathetic: one is an irascible minstrel who spends most of the film posing for an annoying photographer from Teheran keen to photograph the native population in situ, setting up one ridiculous, contrived pose after another; a second character is a frustrated factory worker in love with a woman who never speaks (the sole female character); a third is mentally and socially deficient and only really bonds with a donkey; and the fourth is the third character's uncle, running a failing clothes shop and given to long pauses staring into the middle distance.

This is a film long on atmosphere and short on plot. Many will find it annoying. I was impressed by the cinematography and the stylised way Jalali told his story, but was left a bit confused about the point he was making. And what happened to the women?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cool as a Uke: Amanda Palmer Plays Radiohead

Cover of Amanda Palmer recordOr to give it its full, splendidly retro title: Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele, in which the newly-liberated-from-major-label-hell Palmer tackles six songs by prog-indie mopesters Radiohead. Perhaps it is not such a stretch, as the Oxford band share Ms. Palmer's penchant for pay-as-you-like releases: this one is available for download at 84 cents and up, to pay for licencing and admin costs. Anything above the minimum goes to Palmer and the other musicians.

So, it's totally DIY, direct selling, which is a natural progression of Palmer's online adventuring, which includes active Tweeting, aggressive merchandising and irregular webcasting. This past week, for example, she delivered a marvellously ramshackle webcast to launch the record, highlights of which were a performance of her song "Gaga, Palmer, Madonna" in the bath, as well as two versions of "Creep", one tense and a bit detached, the other rather more intimate, if tinged with fatigue. It was a gripping, if chaotic, set.

So, what do you get for your 84 cents' worth? Well, for me, the first two cuts are the weakest. "Fake Plastic Trees" and "High and Dry" sound a bit detached, as if she is still warming up. "No Surprises" sounds as if she is too close to the mic, and her downward vocal swoops are a bit melodramatic for my taste. This is a performer steeped in the stage tradition, with charisma to burn. But, these recordings are not her finest work.

Things get much more interesting on "Idioteque". There is intriguing online footage of her recording this in Australia, and the live version on the webcast was also a standout, featuring her musician chums Cormac Bride and Molly on vocals and piano. Palmer (or AFP, as she prefers to be known) also contributed some discordant percussion by striking the piano strings. On record, this song works beautifully, emotionally, and technically (if you see what I mean), whereas the preceding ones seemed almost Palmer-by-rote.

Then there are two versions of "Creep" to contend with. Having seen her perform it on ukulele earlier this year in Vienna, I am well aware how brilliantly this song works in a live setting. The album contains a soundchecked version, as well as a live one, neither of them as good as in Vienna, but what can you do? Given that the soundcheck version is parenthesised as "hungover in Berlin", one might view it with suspicion, but it actually adds a great deal of pathos to hear Palmer's rather strained vocal on the high notes. She has impressive breath control, to say the least.

In between the two "Creep"s is a piano and strings version of "Exit Music (for a Film)", the dark, reflective song with which she closed the webcast in fine style.

It will be interesting to see how Palmer negotiates the post-record label digital future. As she explained in her blog: "This whole radiohead release is a GRAND EXPERIMENT. it’s my first self-release off the label. i have no idea how the hell it’s gonna go and i’m not claiming to know what the answers are. i’m figuring out how to do this as i go along, and you’re helping me do it."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Solitary Woman: the rise of the one-woman band

Lianne Hall at Slaughtered Lamb in London; photo by Val PhoenixI don't know if it's the allure of total control or simple economics, but I do notice a plethora of one-woman bands knocking about at the moment, laden with guitars, laptops and effects pedals.

I have had the pleasure of meeting a few of these acts recently and, indeed, next week's (22 July) Odd Girl Out features the session Golden Disko Ship did when she came in last month on a visit to the UK. She referred jokingly to her set-up as her "ego trip", albeit in a very self-deprecating way.

This week also saw the release of Girl In a Thunderbolt's album, Seven Sisters, recorded some time ago in Norway. She is already well underway with fresh material, but the tracks on here are well-produced, showcasing a distinctive vocal style keeping just this side of overly mannered and set to some moody, brooding tunes.

Also out is Lianne Hall's album, Crossing Wires. I first came across her when she was in the art-punk band Witchknot, who were mainstays of the DIY Bradford scene back in the '90s, but then lost touch with what she was doing once she moved to Brighton. I know she was in the band Pico and also playing solo, but then saw her playing last month in London. She is what I might call an amplified singer-songwriter. The songs seem to come from a foundation of acoustic guitar, but are then gussied up with electronics. Her voice, too, is made for confessional song-writing, with a plaintive, highly emotive quality. While the songs on Crossing Wires are a mixture of sparse ballads and up-tempo songs, I actually prefer the more produced ones, as they take the songs to new places.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

And then there were two...

A slight detour into sport, if I may. So, it's the World Cup final tomorrow, with the 3rd place playoff having been decided today. This means that Paul, the psychic octopus, has a perfect record of predictions going into tomorrow. Will he make it a clean sweep? The suspense is unbearable.

For me, Paul has truly been the find of the tournament, sneaking in under the radar, building up strength slowly and possibly peaking at just the right time. I have mixed feelings for tomorrow, as I would like the Netherlands to win. But, Paul has gone for Spain. And, as they say, the octopus knows best. I do think if Paul finishes with a 100% record, he should get the freedom of Oberhausen. Or perhaps, just freedom.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The joys of live webcasting....

Just spent a few frustrating minutes at Sofia Talvik's webcast, having logged in an hour early as the message on her site said it would be "Live at 8pm", without specifying a time zone. As it's in Sweden, I guessed two hours ahead of BST, but was wrong.

Then, having picked up the gig a few minutes late (as I wandered elsewhere on the web), I found an over-exposed, slightly wonky camera position, a few dropouts and, after two melodious, acoustic songs.... Nothing. The feed went dead. Oh, well. That's live. Ba-dum-bum.

Ah, but it's back now. And she's speaking Swedish. No subtitles, unfortunately. But something about "acoustic Florida" (her record). Despite that sunny title, the songs are quite wintry in feel, albeit delivered in summery, al fresco fashion--acoustic guitar in hand, before an audience that seems to be chatting away, rather obliviously.