Archive for the ‘art’ Category

Videotales – Are Pop Videos Still Relevant?

June 4, 2013

(NB – news article about The Art Of Pop Video, an exhibition at Liverpool’s FACT, which closed on 26/05/2013)

From Dylan waving placards along with ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ to Chris Cunningham’s nightmarish animations for Aphex Twin, pop history is full of iconic, innovative videos. And yet, difficult though it may be to comprehend in the age of YouTube, the record industry hasn’t always valued them so highly.

Initially the pop promo was seen by old-skool rockists as commercial fluff, an advert that diverted attention from the more important matter of the music itself. MTV changed all that, as the artistic ambitions that fuelled 1980s chart pop provided a platform for directors to challenge their own colourful imaginations.

A major new exhibition at FACT – Liverpool’s acclaimed media arts centre – investigates the history of the medium, featuring over a hundred video clips ranging from Fred Astaire’s iconic ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ choreography to Spike Jonze’s stylised work for the likes of Björk and Fatboy Slim. According to curator Michael P Aust, the pop video’s “synaesthesia of music and moving pictures” is unique.

“No other art form has this: the moment when we’re moved by a song, but unable to distinguish whether this comes from what we’ve seen, or what we’ve heard,” he says. The Art Of Pop Video exhibition provides a rare chance to properly study this powerful combination. “There are no pop video museums,” says Aust. “Unlike in cinema, no canonized selection of important works has been established yet.”

It’s an apt time to look at this subject, as we may actually be in something of a golden era. Always a way for breaking filmmakers to boost their credentials, videos are currently attracting Hollywood big-hitters. JJ Abrams is directing Empire Of The Sun’s new ones, David Fincher did Justin Timberlake’s comeback vid, while the likes of Tilda Swinton and Shia LeBouef have taken high-profile starring roles recently. Videos are a rare chance to do an arty short film that people will actually see.

Newer acts are fully exploring the medium’s potential. North London troubadour Tom Hickox is the son of a classical composer, Richard Hickox, but takes his visuals as seriously as his songs. He collaborates with a new company called De La Muerte Films, and feels that music videos are more important now than ever.

“People are as likely to hear music on YouTube as anywhere else, so the visual half of that medium needs to be addressed,” he says. “Film is such a potent force, so it needs to be handled with care, but when the marriage of film and music works it elevates the song into a different realm.”

For FACT, the exhibition represents an opportunity to explore pop video in a grander context, posing questions about “what legitimises an art form,” explains programme producer Ana Botella, “and what defines our times – past the age of television into the age of accessible digital tools, the Internet and social networks.”

The technology has certainly improved over the years, but has the overall quality? “There are a hell of a lot of stylish, expensive videos out there which lack any soul or impact,” says Debbie Scanlon of De La Muerte, who’ve also made films for Dog Is Dead and Kyla la Grange. “We have the potential to be more creative now with new tools, but it’s important we still use our brains.”

So is there scope to take more creative risks, in the post-TV age? “It tends to be down to the artist and their team. We probably won’t be allowed to make that big budget elephant sex video we had in mind for One Direction,” she laughs. “But at the same time, if they decide they want to change their image…”

(Originally published by Clash Music, 24/04/2013)

TUNABUNNY – Genius Fatigue

June 4, 2013

When we were 12, my friends and I formed a band. Our “skills” were best described as rudimentary, matching our shoddy equipment and a feeble understanding of what we were doing. In school, we sold cassettes of ourselves (it was the mid-’90s) trying to articulate the raw sounds that buzzed frantically around our heads; perched awkwardly over a one-channel recording device but oblivious to its restrictions; gleefully obeying the gnawing need to disregard our artistic limits and just create for creation’s sake.

We told our peers we were the greatest band in the world, perhaps even convincing ourselves that three Beatles-obsessed fuckwits using two pencils as drumsticks might be capable of bursting past the surface; melting through the slime; becoming a phenomena for the ages.

Naturally, we were shit. But it’s the most artistically “free” I’ve ever felt in my life – the only time I can honestly say that notions of “how things are supposed to work” (yawn!) or “other people’s standards” (fucksake) or “professionalism” (spit!) were irrelevances. When self-belief and necessity and an inability not to create drove everything more than aspiration or consideration for how other people might perceive it. It was liberating, it was wonderful, it was the impetuosity of youth illustrated in such glorious colours that it’s dazzling to look back. So yeah, I peaked with shitty tapes of poorly-recorded, woefully-played half-songs, and fuck, man, I miss that feeling.

I’ve not thought about this stuff for years (the joy, the excitement, the unrecreatable  sense of wonder), but Tunabunny bring it all flooding back.Genius Fatigue is the third album from the Athens, Georgia four-piece, following the nihilistic avant-sulk of their self-titled debut and its post-punk-inflected follow-up, 2011’s Minima Moralia. Together those two records formed a diptych positing the destruction and ultimate salvation of music; an artform which has chewed itself and spat itself out so many times that any deviation from the tried and tested feels like a minor victory. Rest assured: this band are far from ordinary, and this continues the frankly mind-boggling acceleration of their capabilities. A sped-up image of a flower; growing and bursting and blooming into being. It’s beautiful.

Take that frantic opener, ‘Duchess For Nothing’. Building from panting, staggered urgency to high speed roars of assertion, vocalists Brigette Adair Herron and Mary Jane Hassell kick and punch their way through the song’s two raggedy minutes as though the fate of the world depends on them. “She ain’t a parody of woman – she’s a screaming queen”, they declare, pounding transphobia to dust with voices not wildly dissimilar to those of the Deal sisters (never a bad thing). Lo-fi, raw and bruised, it ain’t the stuff top ten hits are made of. But it is the sort of thing wide-eyed kids fall for with unabashed, undying devotion. We’re so used to the forced passions and staged over-emoting of 21st century pop that it almost feels shocking to hear people actually singing from their hearts – that’s exactly what this record does.

Elsewhere their muse takes hold of dizzy psych (‘Serpents And Lights’), fractured, ethereal balladry (‘Airplanes In Echelon’) and dusty, damaged drone-pop (‘Wrong Kind Of Attention’). Topics leap from Hollywood nepotism to political insurrection, while echoes of Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth and The Fall fly around with heroic abandon, occasionally crashing into each other and tumbling into concussed piles underneath the whole wonderful mess. Tunabunny’s glory shines through in the way their incandescence is more audible than their battered, scratchy instruments – songs are captured upon creation, valuing the rawness of the art and the celebration of its completion far higher than less interesting matters like musical proficiency. The scope of their imagination wins out, and tremendously, triumphantly so.

The “genius fatigue” of the title refers to the band’s disillusion with the same old artistic figures being held up as sources of inspiration; of the same old source material being devoured and excreted and devoured and excreted, again and again, in increasingly tedious ways. Maybe it’s time we cast off the old guard and developed new ways of appreciating art. Let’s give up on championing the fixed legends of received wisdom and abandon notions of aspiration or imitation over genuine heartfelt artistry (after all, where have they got us? Fucking Mumford & Sons and Ed Sheeran, that’s where – a patriarchy of mediocrity and smooth-edged tedium). Why don’t we try celebrating ideas that challenge? Or cheer at the accumulation of potential, instead of glib approximations of overly comfortable sentiment? We need a revolution. Maybe, just maybe, Tunabunny are the band to lead the way. (8/10)

(Originally published by The Line Of Best Fit, 29/03/2013)

BLEACHED – Ride Your Heart

June 4, 2013

I’ll level, there are times when I feel like I’m getting bored with new “indie” music. Well, yes, okay, I’ve jumped around to Japandroids. Done the dishes to DIIV, each soapy sud plunged rhythmically against wet ceramic with palpable glee. Nodded along thoughtfully to Dirty Projectors, immersing myself in the rhythmic complexity as one would beneath a duvet cover full of sand: it’s warm! It’s rough! It’s comforting! It’s irritating! But however makeshift or weird, it’s still a fucking duvet at the end of the day.

Too often it feels like there’s little out there that really electrifies the blood; cuts to the core; bypasses the understanding of your analytical process and forces you to feel. This isn’t a new complaint. For some, the mid-’90s saw the end of indie’s full vitality, as grunge went overground and Britpop co-opted an alternative culture to make way for a new mainstream; one where the new, the different or the stimulating was skilfully ignored in favour of bland uniformity. Parochial tubthumping with a retro groove. Some even point to The Smiths as the beginning of the rot, when a post-punk-informed sense of adventure and experimentalism backed down in favour of traditionalism – an exhilarating but unfortunate return to jangling guitars and linear songwriting where the future had once seemed wide open; so full of boundless possibility.

Whatever, it’s all food for thought. But what irritates me about music in the 21st century – especially this so-called independent stuff – isn’t any of the above. It’s the way that, for all the promise of the internet and the depth’n’breadth of sound’n’song it’s supposed to expose, so disappointingly little seems to break through that truly and delightfully fucks with one’s head. We finally live in a world where neither radio nor record companies necessarily dictate the direction pop might take – videos go viral almost instantaneously, so all it takes is for a brief chain reaction of excitement before everyone can hear pretty much anything. Indie in its idealised form, one might imagine, would take advantage of this – audiences should be dictating how the media and music industries extrapolate and interpret popular culture, rather than relying on the same old sources to deliver über-polished, commercialist pop. And yet the best or most inventive acts – your Tunabunnys, your Micachus, your Trouble Bookses – are still playing in basements, unlikely to step up without the great Pitchfork seal of approval that (whether they would agree with this statement or not) seems to define how “indie” works. It’s not the bands’ fault, it’s just how the system functions nowadays, and it sucks.

Sorry. Deep breath. There’s a record at hand. And don’t worry, this isn’t one of those tiresome reviews where the author suddenly says “this record transcends all that” or “but this is different” before disproving the original point or attempting to prove by way of exception. Bleached – featuring Jennifer and Jessie Clavin, formerly of very ace post-riot grrrl punx Mika Miko – are a guitar-pop group that evolved from the scene based around LA venue The Smell.  With acts such as No Age, HEALTH and Abe Vigoda amongst its alumni – modern-day indie rock gentry, if not quite royalty – you’d be totally right in thinking that this band might be very symptomatic of everything I’ve outlined above – indie rock as media-distributed product that titillates but doesn’t challenge. But (ah, here’s the caveat!) despite all that, I like ‘em. Their debut Ride Your Heart doesn’t set its stall out as the throwing down of a sonic gauntlet; it’s indie music that feels like pop. Or maybe the other way round… it’s hard to tell now the lines are blurred.

Drawing on powerpop, new wave and girl group harmonies, this record is full of engaging tunes, doe-eyed dedications and wry witticisms. ‘Dead Boy’ is a comically-upbeat number about still being giddy for a deceased lover, while ‘Outta My Mind’ wears its battered heart on its rolled-up t-shirt sleeve. Best of all, though, is ‘Searching Through The Past’: simple melodic joy, recalling Blondie and The Bangles at their most spine-tinglingly catchy. From afar, it’s easy to be bowled over by its uncomplicated charm and bewitching sweetness; up close one can imagine feeling smitten enough to swoon. It’s like being a kid again and catching the first breeze that really whistles through you, tingling the skin; that really makes you question the external forces of the world, be they incidental to your daily existence or just generally driving it. Plenty of other pop songs will do this in 2013 – ‘Teenage’ by Veronica Falls has a similar way with keening straightforwardness, and draws on similar influences to boot – but it’s always great to be reminded that a dumbass hook and the way a voice bends when delivering certain notes can still make you feel as infinite as they did before you filled your head with all this context.

Which brings us neatly back to where we started. Yeah, some days I am tired of this whole shebang in the 21st century, particularly after the over-saturation of landfill indie and the endless, tedious recycling of pop culture into ever-more watered-down facsimiles of the original source material. I’m bored of dominant media culture dictating what’s hip and what’s not, even when those media cultures seem weak and anachronistic compared to the press power of previous generations (and yep, I’m aware there’s an irony to me using an album review to make that point). I’m fed up of having to wade through so much unsatisfactory sludge to find the good stuff, because our collective imagination hasn’t evolved (or, less pessimistically, hasn’t realised it hasevolved) to a point where it can place nerve-racking challenge at least on a par with comforting familiarity, which in itself specialises in the easy manipulation of false sentiment. But every now and again it’s worth being reminded that these hips were made for shaking, this heart was made for beating and some songs were made for no greater purpose than to get on down with the pair of ‘em. And some days, with the right record playing and all those elements in sync, I don’t feel tired at all. (7/10)

(Originally published by The Line Of Best Fit, 27/03/2013)

Glimpsed for one shining moment

December 23, 2010

I’m a pop romantic really. That is to say, I’m a soppy get when the mood takes me. That mood can be brought about by drunkenness, tiredness, feeling especially down, feeling exquisitely happy or any number of other factors. But let’s say, for instance, that it’s a miserable, grey, wet Tuesday morning in November, and I am hungover, resentful of the fact that I am on a bus headed towards crappy ol’ work, and in the middle of one of those self-indulgent phases where one begins to suspect one is wasting one’s life. All it takes is for me to drift off into the other realm that my headphones create, and listen to Craig Finn reminding me that “getting older makes it harder to remember: we are our only saviours”. Suddenly I’m choking back tears, because he has nailed exactly what I need to hear.

By the same token, I could be helplessly drunk watching a Sebadoh reunion show, cheered by the alcohol, the company and the fact that I’m in the presence of one of my all-time musical heroes. Suddenly the chorus of Brand New Love kicks in, and it’s not just the words, but the buzz of that guitar mixed with the understated sadness of the melody. Lou’s honeyed vocal just sounds so fucking right. Once again the lump builds up in my throat.

And that’s exactly how I want it – I love the fact that music (and, indeed, art in general) can tell me something about myself, whether that be an emotion I’d not quite previously registered summed up neatly in a perfectly-composed phrase, or a key change that makes me feel infinite and invincible. That’s precisely what art should do, and whilst wanting to burst into tears during these moments of lucidity is probably a bit sappy, I don’t really mind. I’m always unsure as to whether anyone else feels like this. Do they? Maybe it matters, I don’t know. It probably doesn’t. What does matter is that sometimes pop music gives you a greater understanding of everything, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

This very morning I realised that The Flaming Lips’ A Change At Christmas (Say It Isn’t So) fits into this category superbly. There’s only one video of the song on Youtube, and Warner Brothers have disabled the audio track, so I’m afraid I can’t furnish y’all with a link. Instead, I’ll describe it to you.

The music is less cinematic and more subtle than the usual Lips fare, placing sweetly minimalistic piano chords over a stuttering mid-paced drum beat. Synth strings sweep across the top with a wistful, building melody before Wayne Coyne makes an appearance. His voice sounds painfully honest in its lower register, as he plaintively tells us the following story:

I know that everything changes
Yeah, it’s strange how time marches on
Well, maybe there’ll be some time in the future
Oh, tell me
(I’m not wrong)
Tell me I’m not wrong

Oh, if I could stop time
It would be a frozen moment just around Christmas
When all of mankind reveals its truest potential
And there is sympathy for the suffering
And there is sympathy for those who are suffering

And the world embraces peace and love and mercy
Instead of power and fear and as sure as I’m standing here
I swear it really does appear that a change comes over us
Yes, some kind of change comes over us

And it’s glimpsed, it’s glimpsed it for one shining moment
And this change, well, feels like a change that’s real
But then it passes along with the season
And then we, we just go back to the way we were
Yeah, we go back to the way we were

And say it isn’t so
(Say it isn’t so)
Tell me I’m not just a dreamer
(I’m not just a dreamer)
Tell me ’cause I’m talking with a friend
And he knows how it ends

He says it’s easier, he says that
That’s just the way we are
That it’s human nature
And that’s just the way we are

Say it isn’t so
Say it isn’t so
Say it isn’t so

Admittedly I was underslept, slightly hungover and a little emotional this morning, but hearing this song whilst braving the ice on Old Hall Street in Liverpool’s business district was like a perfect moment of clarity. The verses are self-explanatory, but the hook (which pulls off that neat trick of only happening right at the end, but turning into a mesmeric singalong) is the crucial part. ‘Say it isn’t so’ sounds like a phrase right out of the whiner’s handbook. Hell, Weezer turned it into an almighty whinge on their superlative first album – a mantra for the dumped.

But here Coyne is doing something different.The situation is laid out for us: Christmas is the one time of year when suddenly we all get it and start being nice to each other, but then we revert when it’s over because that’s just in our nature. When he leaps into his upper register to cry out the hook, he isn’t saying ‘aw man, really? That’s shit.‘ He’s inviting us to join in with him and deny that negativity is in out nature. It’s designed to be one ecstatic call to all; an affirmation of the wonderful spirit of community and happiness that we’re all capable of if we just put our minds to it. Like all the best Flaming Lips songs, it’s in awe of the minutiae of existence. Dammit, it’s a celebration of what it is to be human. It isn’t so, Wayne! I’m with you! We’re all with you!

Yeh, yeh, fuck off, hippy,’ you’re possibly thinking. I don’t care. I’m too busy loving the words, the melody and the moment, and trying to keep the tears in at the beauty of it all. Because these moments are what it’s all supposed to be about.

This is pop music, and this is life.

Merry Christmas, all.


Don’t bury me… I’m still not dead

November 7, 2010

All quiet on the WHTB front recently, but I’ve not been avoiding the keyboard entirely. In the unlikely event that you might want to read any further drivel from these fair hands, two of my live reviews (Auxes and Shrag, who are both superb) crop up in the latest issue of The Fly. My contributions to that mag’s website can be found here as well, including my review of Darwin Deez‘s recent show in Liverpool.

I also scribble for Bookmunch on occasion, if you’re really interested. There’s a fair few of my book/comic reviews up there, and an interview with Zak Sally to boot. In short, the internet is far from light on stuff wot I writted.

Should probably have updated with this sort of thing before now, really. Ah well.

Please sir, I want some Moore

October 24, 2010

the legendary Alan Moore

Mention Alan Moore to most people and you probably won’t get much response. Mention him to arts-savvy hipster types and you’re likely to cause some discussion about the bearded old druid who was phenomenally important in the reinvention of comics as we know them. Mention him to comic nerds and you’ll be smacked around the ears with a volley of rabid, utterly-reverential devotion. So it’s safe to say he’s carved a decent niche for himself – within a field that’s pretty niche itself – as arguably the most well-known figure in comics (with the very possible exception of Stan Lee).

Whether the cognoscenti know him from masterfully-written works such as the genre-transcending Watchmen, occasional appearances on late night arts shows or as the guy who wrote the source material for some hit’n’miss movies (a debate for another time), you’ll recognise that he’s an impressively intelligent dude. Plenty of comic writers have been praised for their scope, or the complexity of their output – Daniel Clowes, Joe Sacco and Frank Miller stand out as obvious examples of realtively-modern times – but few have the same all-pervasive resonance of Moore’s writing. His reputation is well-deserved. It’s interesting, then, that his latest project should not be another comic, but an independently-produced magazine.

Dodgem Logic is not an ordinary culture magazine – there’s none of the hip-to-the-moment hackery that populates Sunday supplements, nor the excruciating Nathan Barleyness of Vice et al. Instead, Moore has gathered writers who are passionate about their subject matter and know how to string some interesting words together without a thought for fashion or other similar irrelevancies. The first issue alone features an article on attempting to live without money, some well-informed femenist polemic and Moore’s own thoroughly-researched history of underground publishing. There are also comic strips (including one by indiepop’s favourite comedian Josie Long), but it’s important to note that they’re treated with the same validity as the columns, rather than for tokenistic value. It’s immensely readable. If the magazine seems slanted towards a Northamptonshire perspective, it’s because that’s how Moore wanted it – although he also claims the DL team “are not local or global: we are lobal.” Five issues on, the magazine is still going strong.

This might seem like something of a vanity project, and perhaps it is to some degree. The vitality of the writing and the colourful, delightful artwork that binds it all together, however, make it more of a necessity project. The age of the internet presents us with almost too much choice in terms of reading material (how did you find WHTB anyway, and why are you still reading?), and underground publications like this are disappointingly rare. That it should be such a fantastic read is a testament to the excellent choice of contributors, and I urge you to seek it out and help ensure that Dodgem Logic remains a going concern.

Mix Tapes 1: “i dubbed the tunes in perfect form”

July 19, 2010

One of the most exciting things about music is sharing it. Whether you’re a casual fan with open ears or an obsessive who just loves to give the gift of perfect sound, it’s a great feeling to know you’ve turned someone on to something new that you can both love. It’s easy to do that in the wake of the digital revolution – mp3s, Spotify playlists or even quick links to Youtube/Myspace have ensured that no-one need wonder what a band sounds like for too long. But in the not-too-distant past, we used mix tapes.

Far more eloquent articles have been written about mix tapes than these humble pages are likely to host, and in any case WHTB was part of the last generation to maintain any interest in the cassette format. I’m certainly writing more in the manner of a grumpy old coot than I have any right to at the age of 28, no matter how deftly I dust off my newly-acquired rose-tinted spectacles. It therefore seems daft, dear reader, to bore you at length with theory. But here’s a few words you may have heard used to describe magnetic tape: outdated, clunky and bereft of many of the conveniences of newer technology. Strange, then, that a new wave of hipsters have apparently deemed it a valid format in this day and age. Surely it should have died out by now?

And yet there is something magical about cassettes – or more specifically, the art of the mix tape. A properly constructed compilation demands time, effort, draftsmanship and a real mastery of the pause button. Whilst mix CDs are not without their charm, there’s something infinitely less romantic about a selection of songs ripped from a computer hard drive and burned to disc in mere minutes. Mix tapes are made with love – which is why they make such ideal presents for a friend or lover. As a teenager, WHTB learned at least as much about certain friends from this simple craft as he ever did from the hours blissfully wasted in their company.

That’s why I’ve decided to put together this occasional series – I’ll be going through my mix tapes and analysing them. Perhaps not in too great detail – just enough to trigger some memories and wallow in simple nostalgia. I’m a sentimental fool these days.

Please feel free to share any memories of your favourite mix tapes below.

Just William / Muses + Shakers – Crushed By Eyeliner

The first tape I’m going to look at was a present in 1999… it was given to me at an open day at Liverpool University, by a friend that i regretfully don’t see too often these days. In any case, it’s a prized item in the mix tape library.

Side A (Just William) is pretty eclectic – I’ve not received many tapes with an opener as surprising, fun or indicative of the compiler as Science Fiction from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Then it’s straight into a track by late-90s Liverpool punks Dog Flambé (who featured a young Doc Horror of Zombina & The Skeletones fame), which is as good a reminder as I’m ever likely to get of the time. There are tracks from forgotten 90s nearly-weres like Octopus, Black Box Recorder and Drugstore. There’s a track by unlamented never-weres Spy ’51 (who i liked at the time, perhaps because of the band’s association with Fierce Panda Records). Most significantly, there are tracks by bands whose names I can’t hear without at least thinking in passing of the maker of the tape: Veruca Salt and The Dandy Warhols. Even looking at the tracklist eleven years on, I’m immediately transported back to a summer holiday that I spent listening to this tape over and over again. Ah, trusty walkman, you were good to this one.

Then there’s the second side, Muses + Shakers. Again, this consists entirely of acts who are inextricably linked to the guy who put them together onto 45 minutes of tape: Kristin Hersh, Throwing Muses and Belly. This run of 14 songs was a perfect introduction to three great acts – they’re all wonderful.

I’m still very, very grateful for this tape. It’s superb. It’s a reminder of a great summer, and also of an afternoon spent in the company of old friends who have all moved away or drifted into different social groups. Which happens to us all, of course, but sometimes it’s just nice to have little reminders like this – a soundtrack to the narratives we create around our lives, to ensure certain scenes will always have their songs.

Just in case I didn’t say it at the time, thank you.

Small Press Comics Ahoy!

March 19, 2010

Ok, this should interest the exciteable arts’n’crafts/DIY comics lovers amongst you. The 7th annual UK Web And Mini Comix Thing takes place in London on Saturday 27th March, and it promises to be a corker. Travel, ticket and event info are up on the site.

Like every year, WHTB is seriously planning to go along. Unlike every other year, WHTB is sincerely hoping to actually make it this year. Expect a full report, should the trip come off.

This seems as good a time as any to recommend a favourite small press comic. Liverpool’s Square Eyed Stories has been going fo rover a decade now, and maintained a consistent level of aceness throughout that time. Here’s some choice cuts from WHTB hero Jim McGee: