Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Thrown to the Lions

Morris's return will reignite the debate about humour and taboo

Last week Billy Connelly, in his twilight years as a leading British comedian, stoked the flames of the old debate about the remit comedians have to push the boundaries of comedy, flirt around (or not) taboo subjects and advance ever further into the heart of dark humour.

Connelly was talking specifically about the outrage performers can invoke through swearing, which is rather self-serving given that the man can barely deliver a joke without punctuating every pause for breath with an obscenity, but personal taste aside, it was a timely, if moot, stirring up of the debate. One of the most divisive comedians and satirists of the last two decades Chris Morris returned to the public eye at Sundance, finally unveiling his latest work: a comedy about British jihadists. What else?

Morris, made infamous by his Brass Eye special (some nine years ago now, which itself was four years after the original series), still retains the mysterious, unflinching and publicity-shunning satirical edge that enveloped him during the fallout from the 'Paedophilia special', and has given his customary lack of media time to promote this début feature, his first major work since Channel 4 series Jam. Critics have already begun to advise who it will offend, though since showing at Sundance it has been largely well-received.

Many will look at Morris's film as just the latest in a line of controversial treatments of difficult subjects, given his history, but that is to discount Morris's acute contextual awareness. Terrorism, at home and abroad, has been a heated political, cultural, religious and social issue post 9/11*, but it has yet to be properly and overtly approached by humour, though it provides a decent source for stand up material. Britain's broad position on terror, from abhorring wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to harbouring concerns over Muslim schools, and the conflicting policy on religious preaching, has since the London attacks in July 2005 descended into increased confusion. Out of that, though, there is much humour to be found, reckons Chris Morris, and he's approached it from a particularly thorny and - following the failed plane bombing on Christmas Day 2009 by a London University-educated man - pertinent angle.

*(That said, there is a painfully funny 'Easter Egg' on The Day Today DVD whereby Morris conducts a telephone interview with Peter O'Hanarahanarahan, who should be covering a business conference taking place in the Twin Towers later that day (September 11th 2001) but quite clearly, it emerges, isn't there).

Does the subject's high profile in the media and penetration of cultural and political zones sanction, or indeed call for, a film being made specifically to raise a laugh? If a certain topic is capable of stirring up emotions such as anger, confusion, compassion, then why not humour also? If art imitates life - and Morris reveals that he was in part inspired by a report of a real failed terrorist attack - it is not to suggest that the imitation can only serve as a mirror and end there.

One of Morris's greatest skills to date has been holding that mirror up to an audience, warts and all, letting the eyes see and the brain disbelieve. It might forever be his albatross, but the hysterical fallout from Morris's Brass Eye 'Paedophile Special', a 'mockumentary' about hysterical fallouts to taboo like paedophilia, transcended the boundaries of satire, humour and social commentary with a peerless brilliance, exactly because it probed at something that was at the time the most controversial of subjects.

The difficulty, or genius, of this type of work is the way in which it is received. Politcial and media outlets dispense and encourage an accepted stance on contentious issues like terrorism, which becomes a stock and recognised view. The reaction to acts of terrorism, quite clearly, is one of shock and disgust. Sometimes outrage and war. But what happens when the issue is displaced, in two ways: by treatment from a different source, namely a film, book or even song lyric, and secondly, in a manner which deliberately contradicts what might be a 'generally-accepted' view?

Imagine this scenerio: a family and guests mourn the passing of a grandmother at a funeral service. As they go to leave they realise her husband, the grandfather, has died during the service. Aside from the morose real life reaction to this, consider the ironic comic possibilities were this a scene in a sketch show: discount for repeat customers, 2-for-1 coffin offer, loyalty card etc etc. This is the detached treatment that art's (un)limitation allows, for any subject matter going.

For a film, as a piece of art, is not limited by an audience or a market, nor by an overarching agenda - unlike the media or political arenas - it will find or make its own. (Whether or not it is then successful is a different matter). It is perhaps fair to say that a film is not and cannot be barred from touching certain subjects simply by its being.

It's more a question of the boundaries writers and performers like Chris Morris and Billy Connelly should or shouldn't impose, in the search to find new angles from which to approach topics, and even to find new topics themselves. Because the less interested in your work the audience is, the quicker it will fade and be forgotten about. And the key point is, for a film like Four Lions, 'interested' doesn't have to mean amused or impressed; it could just as well mean shocked, furious and upset.

But Morris hasn't simply made this film by sticking a number of touchy subjects to a dartboard and taking aim, in order to goad a reaction out from the typical Daily Mail reader. Firstly, while the issue is contentious, it is still 'on-topic' and as a piece of work slots into the current cultural context. Secondly, as a film, the treatment of British terrorists as a source of humour presents the interesting spectacle of whether it will even succeed in its intentions to make people laugh. Often, the closer to the bone, the bigger the risk - and the laugh. Morris is of course well of this, but even so, for a début commercial feature and his first major work in some time, it's a bold opening salvo.

But the third and most important point is that humour does not undermine or belittle that which it uses to raise laughs. Because as Morris himself says, terrorism matters. A film like Four Lions might treat it in a way which might be different, but that is not necessarily 'offensive'. If it makes people think about terrorism in a different way, exposes subtleties to the subject because of the unusual angle, then it serves a purpose of simply adding a voice, a side to the story, on a very broad, current, feared and often misunderstood topic. If Four Lions makes people roar with laughter, and it makes some of them think as well, then, really that's all there is to it.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Nine for '09

It wasn’t the most vintage year of the Noughties, 2009 – it didn’t throw up heavyweight classics (despite releases from bands like U2, Muse and Green Day), its debutants were often too lightweight (La Roux, Empire of the Sun, Dan Black) and it failed to really settle on what was supposed to be the sound of the year.

(Except for the number one here, and everywhere: pretty much anybody who has ever acted on an urge to translate their feelings about a record into the written word agreed on this year’s best album.)

What 2009 seemed to suggest was the increasing closeness of the oft-perceived class war between mainstream and underground, popular appeal and critical acclaim. Nobody who had an ‘album of the year’ in 2009 made music that wasn’t too far out for Radio One or Jools Holland. Solo female electro artists like La Roux jostled for airplay with chillingly sparse guitar-soulers The XX, while French neo-pop artists Phoenix adorned television adverts and instrumental mind-melters Fuck Buttons got played on Top Gear.

All in all, 2009 seemed to say, when music got good, it was very good. Some of it is outlined in more detail below.


1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
When Noah Lennox’s solo album Person Pitch – released under his moniker Panda Bear –romped home as an album of the year in 2007 (and more recently cropped up in many lists as an album of the decade), it served to turn a few more heads toward Lennox’s band ‘proper’, Animal Collective. Their late 2007 album Strawberry Jam was equally well received, but even then, despite that step up in visibility, few would have wagered on their next studio album being by some stretch the best thing to come out of anywhere this year.

But it was, and everyone from bloggers to newspapers to zines to David Letterman joined forces to proclaim, all but unreservedly, that the album of 2009 had been won just two weeks after the year had dawned. Perhaps the most pertinent note to support this is that when 2009 came to a close, no one had changed their mind. The reason? Its irresistible collage of synth loops, primal rhythms and ecstatic joy-infused vocal melodies was mind-expanding, life-affirming and simply the best music released in 2009.

2. Wild Beasts – Two Dancers
By contrast, Wild Beasts’ second album was the year’s laudable slow-burner. Released to decent critical acclaim in August, Two Dancers’ appeal grew stronger and brighter with each listen, as its elegance revealed more glistening musical nuances and turned up gloriously eloquent lyrics – not least when Hayden Thorpe proclaims delicately and menacingly, “Trousers and blouses make excellent sheets / down dimly lit streets”. Like a blood stain smattered across deep pure snow, Two Dancers was a case of beauty struggling to envelop a dark underbelly: a perfect – and timely – counterbalance to Animal Collective’s winning effort.

3. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
The boundless sense of ambition shared by the Fuck Buttons duo Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power manifested itself in wild, sprawling and at times plain awkward instrumentals on their debut, often exerting a sustained pressure of head-spinning soundscapes. With the follow up Tarot Sport, Hung and Power decided to uncork their ambitions further still, and yet somehow created frameworks in which their ideas and verve could work as ‘songs’. The insistent battering rhythm of ‘Surf Solar’, the climax of ‘Olympians’ and the hissing euphoria of album closer ‘Flight of the Feathered Serpent’ were just highlights from an extraordinary and unique sophomore album.

4. Florence and the Machine – Lungs
It was this time last year that everybody was getting very, very excited about a young Florence Welch. The flame-haired songstress was riding the crest of the hype wave, with storming live performances that hinted at greatness and singles that were, simply, ‘it’: that new sound that 2009 was going to be all about.

So it was to Florence’s great credit that Lungs turned out to be anything but that new sound. Explosive single “Kiss with a Fist” was lost among the embarrassment of gems on Lungs that wielded an unwavering power, presence and talent to the 22-year old. 12 fierce and passionate songs burned with Florence Welch’s voice, spilling reams of harp strings, not guitars, over everything, a cacophony of drums making and shaking Lungs’ foundations. Somehow, what came out the other side was a sound that was uniquely Florence’s (inspiring an infamous dressing-down from DiS), a different new sound that no one had really seen coming. Flo might have started the year as one of the BBC’s top sound for 2009 tips, and ended it with countless airplay time on Radio 1, but it was a success that her otherworldly debut record thoroughly merited.

5. The Mars Volta – Octahedron
Whatever it sounded like, The Mars Volta’s fifth LP in seven years was always going to land somewhere in this list for 2009. Having spent four albums expanding his band’s sonic palette to ever greater heights, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez came over all ‘acoustic’ on number five. The term was never expected to be more than tongue in cheek, but Octahedron’s eight tracks – bar, perhaps, the explosive ‘Cotapaxi’, whose climbing riff and intense wailing vocal wouldn’t have sounded out of place on previous album The Bedlam in Goliath – certainly took people by considerable surprise.

‘Since We’ve Been Wrong’, one of the band’s more inherent nods to Led Zeppelin, and ‘With Twilight as My Guide’ both flowed with barely a patter of drums, instead relying on layers of subtle guitar and a more natural use of Cedric Zavala-Bixler’s voice to focus the attention. Elsewhere, the restraint only increased quietly ferocious tracks ‘Teflon’ and ‘Desperate Graves’, the latter seeming to hint at a reference to Eriatarka, all the way back from their debut 2003. For purists, especially those who’ve still not forgiven Cedric and Omar for At The Drive-In ‘what ifs’, Octahedron was noticeably short on urgency and The Mars Volta’s usual psychedelic challenges, but its power and finesse came from a far more majestic, if softer, sound. New formula: same result for album number five.

6. Grammatics – Grammatics
The original foursome who released this gleaming debut back in February have, unfortunately, since jettisoned two members, including cellist Emilia, whose sweet string melodies and vocal harmonies combine to produce some of the album’s finest moments.

A grower, the self-titled LP was anything but guitar-driven, despite the band being fronted by ex-Colour of Fire man Owen Brinley His clever riffs and chords interplay with the cello lines, letting song structures ebb and flow, sometimes packed with intensity – especially Brinley's vocal histrionics – and sometimes allowed to simmer. Full of constantly surprising nuances and musical turns of phrase, on top of some striking rhythm work, Grammatics’ first record made for very affecting indie, grand with unbridled ambition but tempered by hints of pop. It’s a shame that half of the people who made this debut are no longer around to create the follow up. But in some ways, that just makes it an even more intriguing prospect.

7. Bombay Bicycle Club – I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose
When these youngsters burst onto my radar a couple of years ago, (ahem), their melodic, youthful output glimmered with promise, with one EP crafted and another equally exciting one soon to follow. 2009’s album delivered their great tunes, but with two years’ growing up, their sound had developed a broodier edge.

No longer were the vocals fragile and wide-eyed; instead Jack Steadman’s voice, while still quivering in places, seems to have been hardened by the tales of the love and loss told in the lyrics. Stronger, too, were the guitars – clever parallel melodies between two leading guitars, heavier chords and the occasional standout riff. With the tracks all in a similar vein genre-wise, yet each with its own individual flourishes and hooks, IHTBBISTL was something of a coming of age accomplishment. It was by no means an eyebrow-raiser, with several years’ hype weighing down in expectation, but it was perhaps the freshest sounding indie debut in the last year of the Noughties.

8. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
Those Beatles comparisons refuse to die. Alex Turner, often half-hidden by his unruly, Lennon-esque mane and now, like Lennon, a resident of New York, may have toned down the bullish aggro that seemed a by-product of the Monkeys’ astronomical fame a couple of years back, but the music keeps on getting better.

Unlike their instant classic Whatever People Say... and its equally brilliant follow up Favourite Worst Nightmare, Humbug – introspective, moody, darker and, well, just slower – took a long time to truly give up its treasures. But when it did, Humbug evidenced some of Turner and Co’s’ greatest songs yet: ‘Crying Lightning’ built into their most well-rounded single to date and included Alex Turner’s fabulous storytelling at full strength (“You never looked like yourself from the side/but your profile could not hide/the fact you knew I was approaching your throne”), ‘Cornerstone’ was a simple slice of guitar pop, miles from the sharp punky singles from their first album. But it was elsewhere – the mysterious album closer ‘The Jeweller’s Hands’, the classic indie chorus of ‘Secret Door’, and ‘Fire and the Thud’, the shuffling, elegant George Harrison-like love song – that, over a few listens, posited the theory that after all the hype, the singles, the million-sellers, the awards, Arctic Monkeys’ third album Humbug was somehow their most impressive.

9. Passion Pit – Manners
When all the cool kids discovered Black Kids following their Wizard of Ahhhs EP at the end of 2007, and everyone else caught up six months later, they were supposed to be the brightest young things going, about to release a landmark debut. Instead, they released the Bernard Butler-produced, fun but musically pretty stagnant Partie Traumatic.

Manners, from Passion Pit, is the album Black Kids could (perhaps should) have made, full of joyous, bounding vocal melodies and eclectic electro sounds and visions. Its quirky synth lines fizzed with energy, sparking huge life into the sort of danceable indie that in other hands can so easily sound flat and false. Passion Pit instead were fresh, reinvigorating belief into a sound that was just starting to become a bit of a chore. With glorious choruses pouring in from all sides, songs like ‘Moth’s Wings’, ‘Sleepyhead’, ‘To Kingdom Come’, ‘The Reeling’, ‘Make Light’ and more soundtracked the year with uplifting dance anthems, making Manners a polite reminder of how well this genre can be done.

...and Nine more for 2009:

The XX – XX
Chillingly stripped back, quietly heart-stopping soulful dub-indie. Possibly a one-off.

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Jumpy, buoyant and brilliant French indie-pop oozing with class.

Wavves – Wavvves
Scruffy surfer pop to soundtrack unshaven, hungover and slightly-angry-for-no-reason Sundays.

Sky Larkin – The Golden Spike
Scratchy awkward riffs and shouty female vocals from the Leeds three-piece.

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
Heartfelt folk with huge crossover appeal and uplifting soundscapes.

The Bird and The Bee – Ray Guns are Not the Future
Twee jazz-pop with added electronics, one of the most underrated albums this year.

Telegraphs – I Don’t Navigate By You
Outstanding British melodic rock with better choruses than Paramore and acute musical awareness.

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
Powerful and epic, mystical and sometimes psychedelic, really it’s just good female pop and balladry.

Dent May and his Magnificent Ukulele – The Good Feeling Of...
Chirpy ‘50s throwbacks by a Costello-aping crooner and his “like a guitar but not a guitar” instrument. Worked.


Thursday, January 07, 2010

Strauss's men pass sternest test

From 4pm yesterday 'til 8.30am this morning, not many people would have given Andrew Strauss's men much hope of withstanding an entire day against a strong South African side, with their tails up, and with only seven wickets to last them. With less than an outside chance of England chasing down 466 - some 130 runs more than England's highest ever winning fourth innings chase - it was simply a case of how long England would last until the inevitable collapse.

And lesser sides - particularly some of England's, over the last 15 years or so - would have crumbled. At times, it had appeared that the collapse was just around the corner. When Trott and Anderson both went within 40 minutes of each in the morning session; when Paul Collingwood, after all his hard work had given England hope, was out quickly followed by Prior; and when Ian Bell, after 213 balls of intense pressure, left Graeme Swann and Graham Onions three overs to face against South Africa's pace attack, each time England looked doomed.

But Strauss's men have proven for the second time in South Africa what they are made of. Every man who batted for England on the final day of the test was heroic, from Anderson who faced 52 priceless balls to steady the ship at the start of the final day, to number 11 Graham Onions who might never be more proud to see his name next to a '0 Not Out'. Kudos go to Andrew Strauss and Alistair Cook too, for their 100 opening partnership on day four, without which the draw-clinching effort would not have stood a chance.

To Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell, though, go the biggest plaudits. Both spent over four hours at the crease each, guarding their wickets with their lives, not for personal glory - Collingwood made just 38 off 188 deliveries - but for the good of the team. Ian Bell, who despite having played over 50 test matches and scoring a stunning 142 in the previous match still gets the fiercest criticism, proved all his detractors wrong with a responsible and resilient 78 from 213 agonising deliveries, which alongside Collingwood's robust innings, proved to be a match-saving partnership.

Not that long ago, England's test cricketers would have been odds on to wilt in the intense heat of the South African sun, facing the intense pressure of saving a test match against a world class cricketing nation on their home patch. But this current England side is beginning to look nicely balanced, with world class players in every department and developing talents starting to flourish, and under the guidance of Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower, the winning mentality is beginning to grow brighter. England cannot lose the Test series in South Africa now, and a win in the final test next week for a 2-0 series victory would confirm England's as a re-emerging power in world Test cricket once again.