Friday, October 21, 2011

Lynne Ramsay's 'We Need To Talk About Kevin': The Omen Inverted - A Pop Art Jigsaw Of Alienation And Fear Of The Alien Within

Fifteen years ago, when Lynne Ramsay’s filmography could be viewed in a little more than 10 minutes, I asked what motivated her. She was happy – her short film Small Deaths had just won a prize at Cannes – and her conversation was bright and full of hope.
Still, she didn’t take long to answer the question. She was motivated by anger, she said.
It seemed odd. On that day, in her rented room with a fire bucket full of discarded ideas, she seemed more idealistic than enraged. But, looking back, there was something in her attitude which would echo down into the more difficult days of her career. Describing her first experience of the whirlwind of Cannes, she talked about surviving the storm by going onto autopilot. And, while excited for the recognition, she had been shocked by the tone of much of the festival, in which films were discussed as items of trade, and filmmakers were required to talk about the Unique Selling Points of their work. “That really scared me,” Ramsay told me. “You’ve got to think about your own reasons for making films. Not other people’s reasons.”
Scroll forward to the present, and Ramsay’s horror at the commercial brutality of the film business is undimmed.
She has certainly endured a tough decade. After the great critical success of her first two full-length features, Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002), Ramsay seemed unstoppable. True, her films hadn’t troubled the box office, but she was established as one of the UK’s brightest talents.
The last time we met, nine years ago, she was newly married (on a yacht, in Cannes, to musician Rory Kinnear) and talking optimistically about her forthcoming project, a poetic adaptation of Alice Sebold’s novel, The Lovely Bones. She had acquired the rights when the book was half-written, and it had subsequently become an Oprah-endorsed bestseller. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer to that question is long and complex and sadly predictable. In short, Ramsay’s idealism came up against the power of Hollywood money, and lost. The battle was protracted, and debilitating, to the point where the Glasgow-born director wondered whether she would ever make another film. But this parable has a happy ending – albeit one underscored by notes of existential terror. After losing control of one bestseller in which childhood is scarred by evil, Ramsay acquired another: Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. And this time, not without difficulty, the film got made. Ramsay’s poetic reworking of the book played at Cannes to general approval, and there are murmurs that its somnambulant lead, Tilda Swinton, may be in with a shout for an Oscar.
Whatever: Lynne Ramsay is back. And this time she has good cause to be angry.

I meet Ramsay outside a Costa coffee shop in the shadow of the Archway Tower, near the north London home she shares with Kinnear, and a drumkit (to be played only when the neighbours are out). Technically, this is Islington, though it is not the Islington of popular imagining – Tony Blair, Granita and all that. It is scruffier, and more interesting – at least to a filmmaker whose first creative act was a portfolio of photographs of Glaswegian urban decay. 
The good news about We Need To Talk About Kevin is that it is very much a Lynne Ramsay film, filleting Shriver’s novel, and turning it into a sensual excursion into emotional numbness. In many ways, Ramsay’s dreamy, nightmarish Kevin is almost a silent movie. “I am a big fan of silent films,” Ramsay says. “And Tilda said something like ‘when words came in, cinema went downhill’. I like the actors to do very little – it’s all tiny facial expressions. It’s just describing feelings through images, rather than through dialogue.”
While toying with horror imagery, Ramsay inverts the clichés of the genre. “I just thought it was a fantastic premise,” Ramsay says. “It was something I hadn’t seen before in film. There’s things like The Omen, but they’re fantastical. This idea – what if you don’t feel for your child, and how you project that onto your child…? These are things that you don’t get to talk about, but women do have those feelings. What if it turns out this way? It’s about real fears – it’s a fear of this thing growing inside you.
“I’m a big fan of genre films, but I feel you should play with it slightly , and I was interested in playing with it in an inverted way. Also the way the mother sees her son – she’s seeing him like he’s in one of those films, rather than it being one of those films.”

Swinton plays Eva, the mother of a teenage boy who commits a high school massacre. But the focus in Ramsay’s film is on the emotional struggle between mother and son. “I was trying to explore the mother-son dynamic, because the high school killing is Kevin’s smokescreen. I saw it as a perverse love story.
 “It’s like a Greek tragedy. Just focusing on this bizarre relationship between this mother and child. You can't do a wide nature/nurture thing – that would be so crass, but I was also trying to make a compelling film – something that would draw you in, like a psychological thriller or a horror.” 
Kevin, she says, is “a middle-class kid. He has everything, but he's still angry. When I was doing The Lovely Bones I went to a lot of schools, and I think there’s a lot of rage in young people – even in apparently safe, suburban places. And that age, 15, 16, is an uneasy age as well. You can see that with the riots.”
There is no violence on screen. “The rule I made for myself was I’d only show what she could imagine. She could never go inside the gym; she doesn’t know what the hell’s happened. She could only relive that again and again, so that’s her eternal nightmare.”
At Cannes, Ramsay explained her interest in the mother-son dynamic with reference to her brother’s sometimes troubled relationship with their mother. She doesn’t want to expand on this, except to make the general point that children sometimes have very defined personalities, irrespective of what their parents do, yet mothers get no respite from feeling responsible for them. But she agrees that Shriver’s book, while apparently about the after-effects of extreme violence, is actually more concerned with a woman’s fear of motherhood. 
“To tell you the truth, I’ve been thinking of having a kid, and then you think about having a career and how to juggle that. I have some of those fears about how the baby would turn out, and also looking at families, and how different each kid is, or seeing these mothers that don’t connect with their kids.”
At 41, Ramsay is no doubt aware that her own body clock is ticking. “It’s been a tough film to make, because sometimes you forget how loaded it is. But it hasn’t put me off. It’s made me think a lot, about being an older mother, and what you give up, and what you gain.”
That urge  to keep working, now that her career is back on the rails, is surely inspired by the experience of working fruitlessly for several years on The Lovely Bones. It has been a long haul, but Ramsay’s hurt and anger still seems fresh.
She tells the story with all its confusing subplots. Briefly, Ramsay was offered the opening chapters of the book by a producer, and agreed to direct it before she had seen the novel’s rather schmaltzy conclusion. By then, she had developed her own idea, which she describes as being a “Hamlet-like” exploration of heaven. As the book became a bestseller, Ramsay found herself fielding phone calls from Hollywood. “It was pretty weird, all the agents who loved my work sounded like they’d never seen any of it!” Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks pitched up, and Ramsay found herself under huge pressure to abandon her own vision. “People were talking about The Lovely Money instead of The Lovely Bones, and I was up every night, feeling like I was going to get into a ton of shit. It was becoming a studio picture, and people were saying ‘Where’s the voice of Susie that we know and love?’ It got very Kafkaesque in the end. They just wanted a literal translation – they think that’s what makes a bestseller into a good movie, and they’re so wrong.
“I just got sick of it. I’d handed in another draft to be told ‘this isn’t enough like the book’, but I told them: if you’re going to make the book, I don’t think the film’s going to work. I could have gone and made loads of money, but I probably would never have made a film again. It would have killed me. I’m well out of it, but having that amount of time in your life be wasted…” She sighs, wistfully.
The Lovely Bones, she concludes “was one of those projects that had bad smells hanging round it, because everyone wanted a wee piece. But you live and learn!
“That was my brush with Hollywood.”
The project began in a spirit of great optimism. When we spoke in 2002, Ramsay gushed with excitement about the American road trip she had taken with her co-writer and friend, Liana Dognini. Looking for inspiration, they had set off down the east coast, taking photographs along the way. Ramsay had hoped these pictures would set the mood for her film – the bruised Americana you’d find in the photographs of William Eggleston and Wim Wenders. “We were trying to get to New Orleans. We didn’t quite get there, but we had a lot of adventures along the way.” The thought of it makes the literal spookiness of Peter Jackson’s subsequent film of The Lovely Bones seem like a wasted opportunity.
But Ramsay’s regrets are more poignant. After a sudden illness and a liver transplant, Dognini died. “She was only in her early forties and it was really unexpected. It was really sad.
“So it was a pretty messed up time for me, with that project being such a nightmare and then that happening. I was completely depressed for a couple of years.”
She laughs, trying to lighten the mood.  “My dad passed away quite soon after Liana, so it was a really heavy time…”
Though the autobiographical aspects of Ramsay’s films are perhaps overplayed, there is a scene in Small Deaths which is mined directly from childhood memory, as a young girl’s mother combs and preens her husband’s hair, preparing him for a night out.
“My dad was just a real Glasgow guy who would go to working men’s clubs, and his local. He liked his pint and his crossword. But he was a really bright guy. I’ve been getting into crosswords and I’ve noticed there’s a real correlation between making a film and doing a massive big puzzle. A film’s like an insane jigsaw puzzle, you know? With this one, it’s like I’ve made one of those jigsaws with too many pieces, and I’ve lost one.” She laughs. “But I think I got into problem-solving through him, because that was how his brain worked.
“He’s sorely missed. He was really proud of me, but he said it like, ‘That’s great, hen,’ you know?
“I would have loved him to come to Cannes. He’d have laughed his head off and thought it was a lot of crap anyhow! But just to get him there on the red carpet would have been hilarious. He was just such a grounded guy. I just love that he would never get starstruck or any of that. He was a real star himself in a way, for never thinking that all this was that important. That’s quite a nice thing to have in your life: somebody who doesn’t think it’s the be-all-and-end-all, where you’re going ‘God, filmmaking’s my everything’. You can end up getting so embroiled in it for years that you can end up not looking outside. You’re so blinkered. You don’t see your family. You end up talking to other filmmakers all the time.”
In the lean years, Ramsay survived by doing some teaching and a bit of writing, but there was a time when she was living off her credit card. Kevin was made on a shoestring, and she calculates that she earned no more on it than she got for Ratcatcher. “But if you’re going to stick to your guns and say I want to do it my way, that’s what happens.”
Really, the warning signs were there all along. These days, few filmmakers get away with demanding final cut on their movies, and the budgets for films with an arthouse sensibility have been severely squeezed by the recession. As far back as 2003, Sir Alan Parker – then chairman of the (now abolished) UK Film Council – singled her out for scorn, saying he had no time for filmmakers who expected their films to be funded without regard for their potential audience. He told me: “They’d say: ‘I want the money for my next movie’. You’d go, ‘Hang on a minute, Lynne, or whatever your name might be, you should maybe try and find an audience next time, if you’re gonna ask, not for a hundred grand, but millions of pounds. Don’t you think?” He added that Ramsay limited her audience by being truthful to the language of her country. “Maybe audiences elsewhere find that tough to understand, even if their first language is English.”
“Maybe he never forgave me, ’cause I spilled a glass of red wine over his white suit in Cannes,” is Ramsay’s mirthful response to my edited report of Parker’s criticisms.
As our conversation is interrupted by an eccentric woman cadging a hand-rolled cigarette and offering a biscuit as payment, Ramsay issues a final salvo of ire: about the way the British film industry is Oxbridge-dominated, and sexist; and how her Celtic sensibility is better suited to working in the US, where people say what they mean.
But her heart isn’t really in it. In truth, she seems as happy and motivated as she did when I met her at the start of her career. If all goes to plan, her next film will be a comedy, set in Glasgow, followed by a sci-fi picture, with spaceship, filmed at Pinewood. That's the idea, anyway. As we walk past Archway Tower on a bright autumn Sunday, Ramsay points out that Ratcatcher was well-received when Swinton showed it in China as part of her Cinema Of Dreams project. “People really got it,” she says, excitedly. “It’s a universal story, told in images. That’s what filmmaking used to be about!” 

  

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Punk In North Berwick

I wrote a piece for Tramway's excellent Algebra webzine. It's a memoir about punk in North Berwick. It's here: http://tramwayalgebra.com/2/mckay.html

Saturday, August 13, 2011

RIP Marshall Grant, The Man Who Put The Boom in Boom Chicka Boom

L-R: Marshall Grant, Luther Perkins, Johnny Cash
I was saddened to read of the death of Marshall Grant, who played bass with Johnny Cash in the Tennessee Two. Marshall's contribution to popular music has often been overlooked, but along with Johnny Cash and Luther Perkins, he invented the extraordinary "boom chicka boom" sound which provided the link between country music, gospel, and rock'n'roll. I spoke to Marshall a couple of years ago, and found him a charming, modest man. Here's what he told me about this early years with Johnny Cash in Memphis. 


I was a mechanic and Luther was a mechanic and we worked at Automobile Sales Co on Union Avenue, and I went to work there in 1952. Roy Cash, John’s brother, and I worked side by side. So Luther and I took our guitars to work sometime and we would strum around a little bit in the dressing room when the work was slow. Roy kept saying, I got a brother in service, he plays guitar and sings a little bit, he sings a little bit like Hank Snow. I said, that’s good, maybe when he gets out we’ll get together. So, in the middle of July, I think it was July 15th, Roy went up to the bus station and picked him up and brought him down to the shop. And Luther and I met him there, and we discussed getting together and maybe playing a little bit. We all three played rhythm guitar.
But John's first priority when he got out of Service - he had met this lady in San Antonio, Texas, while he was stationed there, named Vivien Liberto. And he wanted to get married. So he went to San Antonio and got married and brought his little wife back.
I didn’t see him for about 30 days, then one day he came into the shop, and we discussed getting together. We kept hearing what we called ‘The Kid’ around Memphis, and we knew that he had recorded on a label in Memphis, but we didn’t know what it was, or who it was. But we ran it down, and we found out that it was Sun studios, which was very close to where we worked.
The kid is Elvis. We decided we wanted to get on the label. So: three old buddies just picking and strumming on the guitar. I made the remark, I said that’d be good, but we can’t go in there playing three rhythm guitars. I said it in a joking way, but I guess it was true. So Luther said: ‘I know where I can borrow an electric guitar’. I said, ‘Well, John you do most of the lead singing.’ At this time John and I were doing gospel stuff, and it was usually harmony, just he and I. And I said well you do most of the lead singing, you play the guitar and I’ll play the bass.
I bought a beat-up bass for $25. We didn’t know how to play it, we didn’t know how to tune it. Luther had never played melody in his entire life. With the help of some friends, we got the bass tuned. And then we started playing with it. Having fun. That’s all. So I got it all tuned up, and then I stood there and laughed at it, plonked on it, couldn’t do nothing. Luther and I were playing strange instruments, and John was the only one that knew what he was doing. I said: hold on, I’m not sure I can’t play this thing, so let’s start a little melody and join in and John can sing a little bit. And Luther said, well what key? So I said, well E looks pretty good. So he started playing in E and I joined in. I hit the strings and slapped. Hit the strings and slap. John with his old awkward lift that he had on the guitar, and Luther with his god-awful sound on the electric guitar. But the thing that people don’t understand: the first eight bars that we played together with this instrument arrangement, that boom chicka boom sound was right there, right then.
We didn’t like it too much. We weren’t musicians enough to play like those people on records, but that’s what we wanted to sound like. Anyhow, we went in for an audition, and we got it working a little bit, and we wanted to do a song called ‘I Was There When It Happened And So I Guess I Oughta Know’. Sam said ‘We can’t record a gospel song – I can’t sell it.’ He said ‘There’s something strange about you guys, I don’t know what it is, but we need something original.’ We went back and John had a poem called Hey Porter. And we changed that over, put a melody to it. John had another poem called Cry Cry Cry. So we put a melody to it, put it together and worked it up, and after about a week or so we went up to see Sam, and he said ‘OK guys I want to record you.’ That was the beginning of it right there. The first thing we ever put out was Cry Cry Cry. It got to, I think, number 14 in the nation, which was unbelievable. Then our 2nd song was the original version of Folsom Prison Blues. Folsom got up to number 6, I think. Our 3rdsong was a song called I Walk The Line, and it went straight to No 1, Country, No 1 Pop, and No 1 Rock’n’Roll. It’s what Sam called a triple crown. And from right there on our career just mushroomed, and that boom chicka boom sound had a lot to do with jockeys listening to us. Not taking anything from John’s ability to sing the song – he was great, he had a style all his own – but it just seemed that it was meant to be – this boom chicka sound, with John’s old awkward way of playing his guitar. And Luther with that funky way of playing his guitar, and me slapping the bass strings and hitting as hard as I could – it just created a new style and a new sound. Some people give us a little credit for changing the way that country music went – I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I will agree with the fact that Sun artists in general, like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis – I think we all together did change the way that music went. I’m very proud of what we did.
But I miss my buddies, John and Luther, and I’ll never get over them, cos we did so much together, and affected so many people’s lives in a positive way. I think about ‘em all the time. I dream about them every night without fail. And people ask me,Marshall when you gonna play the bass some more, when you gonna play again? And I just tell ‘em: as soon as John and Luther come back. we gonna get together and we gonna play some more. That’s the one answer I can give.
Marshall Grant: May 5, 1928- August 7, 2011

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"I'm never gonna be a histrionic crazy man!" The sad confession of The Jayhawks' Gary Louris

There's a new Jayhawks album coming. While I wait for it arrive, I thought I'd post this interview I did with Gary Louris (first published in The Scotsman, 09 May 2003) 
In his teens, before reality set in, Gary Louris had a dream. "I used to picture myself being a frickin’ rock star. Even though I was incredibly shy, I felt like deep inside I had what it takes."
Fate had different ideas and made Louris the joint leader of the Jayhawks, trading harmonies and sharing songwriting chores with Mark Olson. Together, they made some of the best records of the last decade, most notably Hollywood Town Hall and Tomorrow the Green Grass, which would have been mileposts in the road to alt.country if they weren’t classics in their own right. Those records were the bridge between Neil Young and Ryan Adams: brilliant examples of what happened to country rock after it got over the Eagles.
To appreciate their timelessness, look at the bands which started alongside them in Minneapolis: Husker Du and the Replacements. Both are seen as seminal, both have long since fractured. Their leaders, Bob Mould and Paul Westerberg, may be respected solo artists, but the fire and vim is long gone. The Jayhawks remain and their latest album Rainy Day is among their best work.
"I don’t know if there’s many bands that can say their seventh record is one of their best," Louris asserts. "Or that they haven’t lost it. A lot of it is just the type of music we play. I don’t think Husker Du could still be Husker Du. It’s a burn hot and burn out fast band. And the Replacements were like that. Paul’s continued to make records but he can’t be the crazy Replacements at this point.
"Our music, for some reason, whether it’s more mature - I hate that word - it’s easier to play for a longer time. It’s like soul, I think. It takes a little longer to develop it. Our first record wasn’t our best - you learn how to do it. It’s like the blues."
It has been a bumpy ride. Every time the Jayhawks issue an album, they do so with a mixture of high hopes and weary fatalism. Every Jayhawks record feels like the last one the band will make.
"It’s a good way to make a record," Louris says, "desperation. What I mean is we have nothing to lose. We’ve proven ourselves over time. We’re not just trying to see what it would be like to have a life in the music business. We’ve done it. We’re not trying to get into the business and get another record made. So, that’s a certain amount of freedom. We’re not trying to get on the radio. The only thing we’re doing is we’re trying to make great music. That’s made somewhat in a vacuum away from outside influences.
"I approached this record as take this or leave it. We’ll make a great record. If ten people listen to it we can walk away and know that someday somebody’s gonna dust it off and go, ‘Oh, this is amazing.’" He pauses and allows himself a smile. "I think we’re fooling ourselves. I’d miss it if I walked away from it."
Louris almost had to retreat last year when he was diagnosed with pericarditis, an affliction he is proud to share with Bob Dylan. "It’s a virus that attacks the heart lining and it tends to cause an irritation. The heart lining fills up with fluid and you feel like you’re having a heart attack. It can be life-threatening but it’s easily treatable. They couldn’t figure out something about my blood level. It wasn’t coming back - whether I was internally bleeding somewhere, or I had cancer. They started opening me up and checking me out. In some weird way I got a complete clean bill of health out of the whole deal."
Surviving this trauma seems to have given Louris a sense of optimism about life which is at odds with the world-weary sheen of his lyrics. Ageing, he says, is not all bad. "There’s some great things about it. You have to have the whole package. It sure wouldn’t be bad to have a 21-year-old body. But I have a secret: you marry a women who is much younger than you and she tells you not to think old. I’m not recommending that for everybody, but it works for me."
Sound of LiesThe breakdown of Louris’s previous marriage was recorded on the 1997 album Sound of Lies, which also marked the departure of Olson.
"Some of Sound of Lies was the things that followed the divorce: a relationship I had that was pretty stormy. I seem to have had a pattern of being together with a very solid, together woman, and then the next one will be crazy. Luckily, I’ve married someone who’s really together. But there’s a lot of things surrounding that divorce. I’d been married, I was in a band with a guy, we were a team, and all of a sudden all of that was thrown away. I had moved out of my house during the recording of Sound of Lies, so it was a tumultuous time."
Musically, the loss of Olson was particularly difficult. "Sound of Lies was really like ‘Fuck you. If you can’t take me, I don’t care.’
"I really felt like ‘I’ve gotta have this attitude to project myself’. I’ve gotta just be able to say: ‘This is what we are and if you don’t like it, tell me, and that’ll be it.’"
The violence of this assertion seems at odds with Louris’s placid nature.
"Placid? Those are the ones that you’ve gotta watch out for. Heavy metal guys, screaming: pussycats. Pretty straight. It’s the soft-spoken singer-songwriter guys that are fucked. They don’t headbang or whack through their set and feel like they just did a work out. They’re still holding a lot of it inside. But I like to think of myself as a good person. I’m not without feeling, without passion about stuff."
As he speaks, a clock chimes. I suggest that his writing could be summarised by the phrase "triumph over melancholy".
"Well, we’ve always been triumphing over melancholy. It’s always there. For me, life is never going to be all peaches and cream. There’s beauty in everything but it’s not a perfect world. So, you can’t help by musically touch on that. Somehow we continue to go on and have lives, and not get lost.
"I’m attracted to beauty in songs and I think that shows hope and positivity. I’ve always liked the yin and the yang; of the uplifting sounding song with very dark lyrics, or a very dark-sounding song with somewhat happy lyrics."
Songwriting, he says, is cathartic. "If I write a great song, I feel like that’s who I am, and that’s what I do. I feel like I have worth, I guess. It is cathartic also. It’s expressing yourself, which tells you about yourself. I can’t imagine what I would be like if I hadn’t written any songs ... I might have killed somebody by now."
The themes, he says, remain constant."The big issues. Spirituality: is there a God? Good and evil. It’s still mindboggling, I get up every morning and I think: Why are we here? What are we doing?
"Or struggling with attraction to other people, when maybe you shouldn’t, because you’re with somebody else. A lot of it is about love, about men and women, and about relationships that you’re having, or shouldn’t have had, or hope to have."
Writing, he says, is his favourite part of the job and despite his teenage ambitions, it is still a surprise to find himself in front of a rock band. "Playing’s fun but I’m never going to be Iggy Pop and I will forever be sad that I can’t be.
"I’m never gonna be a histrionic crazy man. I’ve got a lot to do up there. There’s the guitar, the singing, remembering all the words. Iggy didn’t have to play guitar."

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

So Beautiful Or So What: Paul Simon's easy-uneasy listening album

A few years ago, I suggested to Evan Dando that one of his songs was reminiscent of Paul Simon. The remark was a compliment, but the Lemonhead almost spat in response, saying something to the effect that Paul Simon was easy listening, while he was punk rock. 
It’s true to say that Paul Simon’s huge contribution to pop hasn’t always been acknowledged. Yet, as a songwriter,Simon is as significant as any of The Beatles, a point which becomes more obvious as pop revisits its folk roots. Listen to Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues, and what you hear is a sweet echo of Simon and Garfunkel; an acerbic emotion gently expressed, a certain wistfulness, and a sense that the singer is aware that his complaints may be insignificant in the grand scheme of things. 
Of course, Simon himself has travelled a long way from that. Since introducing Afro-Beat to mainstream pop with Graceland, his career since has shown admirable restlessness. For his last album, Surprise, he did what artists in need of external stimulation do, enlisting Brian Eno. In truth, it didn’t work. Surprise sounded like a fight between the instincts of the two opinionated men.
Oddly, Simon’s inspiration for So Beautiful or So What comes from one Surprise’s failures. ‘Everything About It Is A Love Song’ was a skittish collage in the style of David Gray, but the technician in Simon appreciated the song’s melodic shifts. More significantly, for the new album he decided to change his working methods. He stopped building songs from rhythms, and returned to writing with a guitar on his knee. Producer Phil Ramone, who worked on most of Simon’s good records, starting with ‘Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard’, was enlisted.
Clearly, the chemistry still works. From the opening ‘Getting Ready For Christmas Day’ to the valedictory title track, this sounds like classic Paul Simon. The voice is upfront, the melodies adhesive, and there’s a real sense that the singer’s writing has clicked into focus. Some of Surprise was soft to the point of being slushy. Here, he’s telling stories, throwing narrative shapes, and twisting his songs into the service of a bigger idea. Almost every song is preoccupied somehow by God. 
Not that he’s preaching.  You’d be hard-pressed to ascertain where Simon stands on the matter of religion by listening to ‘Questions For The Angels’, in which a lonely pilgrim confronts a Jay Z billboard by the Brooklyn Bridge. “Who believes in angels?” Simon sings, “fools do”. On ‘Love Is Eternal Sacred Light’ – a blues guitar, a battered tambourine, and a sample of Sonny Terry’s harmonica – he muses on the nature of evil, even assuming the voice of God, before the song turns to joy as the narrator tunes into gospel radio. And in ‘The Afterlife’ – a Bo Diddley/Buddy Hollly shuffle – a dead man finds himself queuing for admission to heaven, only to be struck almost dumb on coming face-to-face with God: “All that remains is a fragment of song – Be-bop a-lula…” 
A joke on a lifetime spent in the service of rock’n’roll? Maybe. But Simon’s contribution to the form is his ability to engage emotion and intellect without making the effort obvious. He’s a reporter on the human condition, a soul singer employing the manners of pop. And the beauty of So Beautiful is the way its complexities are made to seem simple: the electronic drum parts contributed by Grizzly Bear’s Chris Bear, the Southern harmonies of bluegrass veterans Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, all of it blends into the whole, adding grit, but not friction, to Simon’s slippery melodies. 
Mostly, what you get is that voice, effortlessly sunny, conversational, and questioning. The gospel according to Paul is a contradiction – it’s balm, but it leaves an itch. Consider the closing song, ‘So Beautiful or So What’. It begins with the singer making dinner. He then tells his kids a bedtime story.  And the song ends, quite shockingly, with the assassination of Martin Luther King.
Easy listening, yes. But uneasy too, if you care to listen.  

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Josh T Pearson: Sad, Funny And Ruminative. Is He A Townes Van Zandt For Our Times?

Josh T Pearson by Herschell Hershey
Josh T Pearson, a photo by Herschell Hershey on Flickr.
Josh T Pearson's album, Last of the Country Gentlemen is one of the best of the year. It's quiet, and ruminative, and sad. Some of the songs sound only half-formed, like they're dissolving into nothing as Pearson plays them. It's a tough record to listen to, and although I love it, I'd hesitate to recommend it to anyone else. You have to be ready to take this stuff onboard.
Live, though, he's a different proposition. I was reminded greatly of the time I saw another Texan singer-songwriter, Townes Van Zandt. Townes was late for the show, and when he arrived, he was very drunk. He explained he had been delayed by a wine-tasting event - a Thunderbird wine-tasting. You couldn't doubt it. And, for the next hour or so, he told rambling jokes, and almost forgot to play. Pearson wasn't noticeably drunk - he had only his guitar and a bottle of water with him onstage, but he did have that Townes sense of humour. "What's the difference between a musician and a large pizza?" he asked. "A large pizza can feed a family of four." And when he played, he seemed to lose himself in the space between the notes of the songs. His guitar-style was guite extraordinary. I'd say at times I was wondering whether he could play the guitar at all - he barely touched the strings, tickling them into life. And then, when the music swelled, it all became clear. But he clearly liked those misty moments best. Of course, the Purcell Room was the wrong venue. It has great sound, and good sight-lines, and - much appreciated by the artist - a fine array of fruits backstage; bananas, grapes, you name it. But it's also a reverential place - the audience were treated like they were at a classical recital, only being admitted between songs, and applauding politely a moment after each song ended. Pearson looked a little out of place up there. I wish I could have seen him in a honky tonk, or, failing that, the Edinburgh Venue, where I saw Townes. Nobody was reverential there. They were more concerned about the sweat dripping from the ceiling.
Still, two days later, I still have "Sweetheart, I Ain't Your Christ" rolling around my mind.

Monday, March 14, 2011

It Ain't Christmas, It's Easter, Honeybunny: all hail the rebirth of Josh T Pearson

You might say Josh T Pearson has baggage.  He’s pretty upfront about it. In the song ‘Country Dumb’ – a great, sprawling, heartbleeding tear-wrencher in which the singer lashes out at himself by way of an apology for being such a predictable loser (and for being, frankly, unworthy of love), he offers a grim piece of self-analysis to the lover he is about to spurn. It starts mistily, with the singer suggesting that he comes from a long line of dreamers. But, as the song progresses, the shadows lengthen.

We’re the kind who start the books but who just do not finish   
We’re the kind who have 10,000 would-be-great, ungrateful, too-long, run-on songs
We're the kind still stuck in the past but who see well into the circle future
You see I miss you woman and baby you ain’t even yet gone

On paper, that final line might read as if Pearson is singing with tongue in cheek, but that’s not how it sounds. The song – and the album which contains it – is a masterpiece of melancholy, a lost telegram of flickering faith and burned-out hope. As advertised, the songs are “ungrateful, too long, run-on” numbers which sound closer to confessional sketches for hymns than they do to pop music. 
Frankly, they don’t have much to do with rock’n’roll either, being almost devoid of rhythm or forward propulsion; unless the rock’n’roll you have in mind is something by Lou Reed at his most emotionally open, something grim by Leonard Cohen, or maybe the recordings Chris Bell made after leaving Big Star, on finding himself trapped between the oblivion of drugs and religious enlightenment. The Last Of The Country Gentlemen has the strung-out feeling of Neil Young’s On The Beach. It is, be warned, tough stuff.
Last Of The Country Gentlemen
This is Pearson’s solo debut.  His first album, 2001’s The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, with Texas trio Lift To Experience, has assumed mythic status, being both greatly revered and almost unheard. It purported to be a concept album about the end of the world, with Texas as the promised land, and was a chewed-up, dog-eared testament to Pearson’s troubled mind, with splintered sheering riffs which sounded like industrial machinery. A full consideration of its merits would include reference to Pearson’s worldview, which is drenched in religion as a result of an upbringing with a lay-preacher for a father. So, as well as being familiar with the romantic fatalism of Hank Williams, Pearson is in the habit of picking the scabs from his conscience, as his emotional state pinballs between lost and found.
The implosion of Lift To Experience left Pearson with the nagging sense that he had something great to live up to. What happened next is a blur. Reading between the lines of Country Gentlemen, you might speculate that strong drink was involved, along with further self-examination. What seems to be true is that Pearson retreated from the music business, moving from Denton, Texas, to a shack in Tehuacana (pop. 307), doing odd jobs to get by. He sold his possessions, keeping only a laptop and a stack of DVDs, while pondering how to make another record. His then label boss, Simon Raymonde of Bella Union, reportedly suggested to him that he put aside his worries about matching up to his debut, and write throwaway material, to ease himself back into recording. He did, only to shelve these songs when the old doubts about artistic merit began to bite. Virtually unknown in the US, he lived illegally in Berlin for a while (this album was recorded at the city’s Klangbild studios, with Martin J Fiedler engineering), before settling in Paris; emerging occasionally for live dates, including some with the Dirty Three. Yes, he has an intimidating beard.
The above may or may not be accurate: the chronology is a jumble, and this is a man with a keen sense of his own myth. But what is plain is that Country Gentlemen is not Pearson’s attempt to make himself more acceptable to mainstream tastes. 
It’s a break-up record. On another level, it’s a crack-up record.
It starts quietly and mournfully, with ‘Thou Art Loosed’, which has a faintly Eastern feel, with Pearson singing from the bowels of a lament. Two minutes in, his voice cracks into focus, sounding like Ian McCulloch as he sings “’cause I’m off to save the world… at least I can hope.” He is whistling in the dark, but that line, “at least I can hope” is one which haunts the record’s seven songs.
‘Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ’ follows: a quite extraordinary thing, wrung out of weariness and devotional imagery,  which slides, over 12 agonising minutes, into a dark echo of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Hello Darkness My Old Friend’. Pearson is habitually so down on himself, so passive-aggressive, so lonesome and ornery, that it’s not always clear who is doing the breaking up, but here he administers his au revoir with cruel clarity. "I can bring you to the water," he sings, "But I sure as hell can't make you drink/It ain't Christmas time, it's Easter honey bunny, and I ain't the saviour you so desperately need."
The grandiosity of the lyric, and its pulp, Southern gothic cadences, are like something by Nick Cave, on or around The Boatman’s Call. That is Cave’s best record, but is disliked by its author, because the songs are so emotionally naked. Country Gentlemen is positively bare-assed by comparison, mostly comprising spare guitar and muttered vocals, with Pearson’s lyrics existing at a level of intimacy and self-revelation that is painful. Cave sidekick Warren Ellis adds neurotic violin on two tracks – the vicious, apocalyptic break-up song ‘Woman When I’ve Raised Hell’, and the astonishing ‘Honeymoon Is Great, I Wish You Were Her’, which chronicles the author’s emotional infidelity over an epic 13 minutes. It feels shorter than that, but it also seems to last a lifetime, with Pearson allowing himself some moments of levity: he’s not daydreaming in the song, he’s “day drinking”, and “it’s drunk driving my mind’s eye blind”.
On these two songs, Pearson’s country roots are apparent, but there’s no hint of Music Row to sugar the pill. The bleakness is served straight. It’s gospel music, but with no sense of elevation or salvation. When the tone is confessional, as on ‘Sorry With A Song’, there’s no hint that he expects forgiveness; the song would work equally well if Pearson was addressing God, and not apologising to a woman, but in either case the mood is of self-abasement and regret, not hope. True, there is some faint mirth on the closing tune, ‘Drive Her Out’, a slurred psalm from under the floorboards, with Pearson repeating the phrase “could you help me drive her out of my mind?” He could be addressing God, though the tenor of the tune, with a rolling piano circling round a whispered vocal, suggests that on this occasion, the object of his devotion is bottle-shaped.
Still, Pearson does allow himself a little joke. “I know that Jesus saves,” he croons, beautifully, on ‘Country Dumb’, “cuz nothing in this cold, lonely world is for free.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Banksy Goldfish in 3D


Goldfish
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
Done on the site of the Banksy/Robbo feud on the Regents Canal, this chalk cartoon of a goldfish diving for a picture of paradise reminds me of the early work by the artist Calum Colvin, with a bit of New Yorker cartoon thrown in.