I fucking love The Drums’ first album. They somehow managed to take New Order’s “Age Of Consent” and spin that sound out for a whole record, with a smear of surf-pop melody on top. It was genuinely great, and four years on from its release, I’m surprised it hasn’t had something of a renaissance or critical reevaluation already. The addition of a bucketload of synths and a downbeat outlook for followup Portamento wasn’t quite as successful, and by 2013, the band were down to two core members and essentially on a solo albums-mandated hiatus.
So we arrive in 2014 with an unexpected third album from this group with a tumultuous relationship with each other, who most had written off years ago as another flavour of the month, NME-cover-starring hype band. It may come as a surprise, considering the circumstances, that Encyclopedia is really bloody good. As a whole, it’s only a nominal deviation and expansion of The Drums’ typical sound; the simple guitar lines are still there, the lovelorn lyrics and Johnny Pierce’s half-nasally, half-angellic vocals remain, and the use of synthesisers seems here to stay, but everything seems less polished, more edgy, and most importantly, more confident. Pierce and Jacob Graham finally seem assured enough in their music and ability to let rip when they feel like, to steam ahead with punkish abandon. Whereas previously things may have been chopped and changed in order to fit the aesthetic of the band, tracks like “Magic Mountain” and “Face Of God” just rush along flipping the bird at naysayers. “I Can’t Pretend” even features distorted fuzzy guitars, something unthinkable when considering the band back in 2010. The choruses of “There Is Nothing Left” verges on something approaching shoegaze, whilst “Bell Laboratories” could convince as a Grimes cover and album closer “Wild Geese” has Wendy Carlos written all over it. For the most part the album is the duo’s familiar sound remoulded into something far more akin to post-punk and the slightly more abrasive indie guitar bands of the day (your Parquet Courts, et al)
There’s always been a delicate balance between the morose and the hopeful in The Drums’ sound - the melodies, the lyrical subject matter, the instrumentation are often polar opposites on the scale - but right now it’s at its most pronounced. The hook of “Deep In My Heart” manages to be both romantic and down-right creepy at the same time; listen to Pierce’s crooning of “I buried you deep in my heart” and tell me you don’t suspect the guy of just being in the backyard with a shovel. But alternatively, “Wild Geese” is relatively lollipops and rainbows; all light guitar plucking and ascending synth arpeggios as “onward and upward/through the clouds, away from the rain and the wind that holds us down” forms a slightly fey mantra against adversity. If their eponymous debut was a soundtrack to hypothetical sunny beach days and youthful summer adventures, then Encyclopedia is the music of a bizarro prom or a very muscially-discordant horror movie.
That first album is always likely to be The Drums’ standout album, the one which is most remembered and defines people’s opinions in a decade’s time, but I have a feeling Encyclopedia will be the connoisseur’s choice, and it’s most certainly deserving of that.
Nothing is more cringeworthy than middle aged people complaining about the prevalence of technology in the modern world. So naturally Damon Albarn - king of musical cringe - uses it as a core theme of his first solo album Everyday Robots. The record’s first line rings out “We are everyday robots on our phones/In the process of getting home/Looking like standing stones/Out there on our own”, and it doesn’t get a lot better from there on. As a multimillionaire and successful product of affluent suburbia, it feels almost petulant for Albarn to strike out against something as ubiquitous and minute as smartphone-focused commutes.
Dull, twinkling semi-folk populates most corners of Everyday Robots, almost like Think Tank stripped of its supposed “exoticism” and after a handful of sleeping pills. It’s disappointing that an innovator, experimenter, engineer like Albarn - a man responsible for some incredible forward-thinking pop in Blur, Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad & The Queen - farted out something this boring, especially for such a milestone as a first solo record. Even when things get more layered and interesting than “acoustic lament”, such as the dub bass and subtle horns of “Lonely Press Play” or the ukulele funk of “Mr Tembo”, there’s as much edge as a ball. If you can’t make a song about an elephant (yes, that’s the subject matter of “Mr Tembo”) fun, then your well is clearly running dry.
Trudging through the monotony of the record, it makes you both yearn for the glimmer in the eye of the Albarn of ten or fifteen years ago and thankful that a proper Blur reunion with new material will likely never occur. I’m not one for fearing about legacies being ruined, but when Albarn is on this kinda of sullen, uninspired form, it’s a relief to have it far away from the band’s hypothetical future output. The only true bright spot of Everyday Robots comes in its final track, the Brian Eno-featuring “Heavy Seas Of Love”, a soulful, handclap-backed ode to optimism in a stark contrast to the most of the rest of the record in that it’s upbeat and enjoyable to listen to at times when not nursing a hangover. It’s also genuinely melodic, even if the main hook is clearly nabbed from The Monkees’ “Daydream Belivever” and Albarn can usually pick his nose and find a decent melody up there. This one track out of the twelve contained on Everyday Robots is the only worthy of being included with the rest of its writer’s classic canon; normally such a ratio would be gladly accepted, but when the gap in quality between the one and the rest is so disparate, it’s not a good sign.
Listen: Jessie Ware - Kind Of… Sometimes Maybe: It’s very good to have Jessie Ware back.
Trailer: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One: It’s hard to get too exctied over THG:M-P1 knowing it’s going to suffer from Deathly Hallows syndrome, being cleaved in half to maximise profits and hype, with little narrative satisfaction ‘til 2015’s Part Two. Still, this looks like a pretty solid blockbusting entry to the franchise, especially with the introduction of Julianne Moore’s President Coin, a return for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, a reunion for Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and a rather big heel turn from Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part One flies into cinemas on November 21st
Fruitvale Station - the biographical drama covering the last 24 hours of the life of Oscar Grant, an unarmed African-American man who was shot dead by police on New Years Eve at the eponymous station- is hard to discuss without drawing parallels with the recent events in Ferguson. The film was released in UK cinemas this June, and by August of the same year, the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by policeman Darren Wilson had not just become national news highlighting the racism within America’s police force, but global news. What particularly links Oscar Grant’s story with Micheal Brown’s is the response of the public who would not let the truth lie- to date protests in Ferguson against the police and National Guard still continue. Similarly, the film opens with real footage taken of the shooting by members of the public with camera phones, which was then posted on the internet and viewed millions of times, with protests and riots of outraged residents of the Bay area ensuing. This footage is raw and a punch in the gut; out of the poor quality images of suspects sat on the floor with police stood up in front of them the shot fired rings through. It gives blatant truth to the phrase ‘based on a true story’ that filmmakers often play fast and loose with. Director Ryan Coogler said that he eventually chose to include this footage as “Being from the Bay Area, I knew that footage like the back of my hand, but more people from around the world had no idea about this story. It made sense for them to see that footage and see what happened to Oscar, and I think it was a responsibility that we had to put that out there”.
It also clearly juxtaposes the rest of the film; here you have been told that Oscar Grant will be shot, it’s inevitable, it’s even true and it’s already happened. Yet, the middle of the film fills you with a cruel hope that it won’t end that way. As we follow Oscar on December 31st, we see him working towards what supposedly are his new year’s resolutions: to be a better partner, father and son. In the early hours of December 31st, Oscar promises to be a better partner to his girlfriend Sophina and their young daughter Tatiana joins them in bed. He goes to the supermarket where he used to buy food for his Mother’s birthday party that night and pleads with his manager to get his job back. He also meets a customer Kate, and goes out of the way to call his grandma and advise her what fish to buy. He chucks away his stash of weed to turn over a new leaf. He sees a dog get hit by a car and cradles it until it dies, a fantastic foreshadowing of Oscar’s own death. The atmosphere and sense of change in the air is heavily present throughout these scenes as he plans his New Year’s Evening with his family and friends, before the fateful dispute on the train platform.
The film does not portray Oscar as a saint, however. There are hints from his girlfriend Sophina that he has cheated on her in the past, which he is trying to make up for. He has also hidden the fact that he has lost his job from his friends and his family. There is a particularly compelling flashback to Oscar’s time in prison with a visit from his Mother, which shows his quick temper. But like all good protagonists, this just gives him a more balanced and realistic character that is expertly played by Michael B. Jordan. The stand-out performance, in my opinion, is that of Octavia Spencer of The Help fame who plays Oscar’s mother Wanda. As the first feature length film from Ryan Coogler, it is deeply moving and well thought out in terms of plot progression and letting the speak for itself.
Fruitvale Station is deeply empathetic, and I sobbed for the final half hour or so, and many responses on Twitter concerning the film are of a similar nature. I know, the tears of a white girl for a racism and injustice that she doesn’t really understand and will never experience. And this review has been entirely written from a white perspective, which I acknowledge makes me the wrong candidate as a reviewer. Although it is hard to extract this film from recent events in Ferguson, I am aware that it is not my place to give any interpretation of this. But I am a film reviewer and I have to review films, and I can’t shy away from this. This film is blatantly and unapologetically about race and racism, and therefore it is the kind of film that we see made every blue moon. You can call it a ‘human story’ and try and eliminate the issue of race, and say that the way the audience responds to it is based on human empathy, but that is a massive injustice and quite offensive. Outside of the zeitgeist of this film or Ferguson, the fact remains that in the US between 2005 and 2012 a white officer used deadly force against a black person almost two times a week. And much like those facts and Ferguson, a white audience can only ever empathise with this film, whereas a black, specifically an African American, audience can sympathise. But if Fruitvale Station shows anything, it’s the power that film still has to raise issues and awareness, whether that be through telling someone’s story or on the mobile phone video camera of a member of the public.
A Most Wanted Man serves as both the third adaptation of a John Le Carre novel in the last decade - after 2005’s The Constant Gardner and 2008’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - and the last completed film of Philip Seymour Hoffman before his death earlier this year, the swan song of probably the greatest actor of his generation. Because of that latter point, one might be tempted to canonise the film as an important work or an instant classic. Unfortunately, the film as a whole doesn’t quite reach the heights of the previous works of its major players, but it is a worthy full stop on the sentence of Hoffman’s career.
Directed by famed rock band photographer Anton Corbijn (everyone is familiar with his images of U2 in the Californian desert or Ian Curtis in the Mancunian snow), A Most Wanted Man is a grim, bleak critique on the war on terror, which finds a Muslim immigrant from Chechnya by the name Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) arriving in in Hamburg by less-than-formal means, soon becoming a pawn in a power struggle between intelligence agencies and counter-terrorism units from both sides of the Atlantic. Hoffman plays Gunter Bachmann, an embittered, hardened, untucked-shirt of a man, all greasy hair, stubble and eyes like pissholes in the snow, a spy with past failures hanging around his neck like so many albatrosses. Bachmann and his team (featuring the excellent Nina Hoss and a criminally underused Daniel Bruhl) are on the hunt for Karpov, believing him to be a jihadist and the start of a trail to capturing bigger fish, namely local Muslim philanthropist Dr. Faisal Abdullah who is believed to be funnelling funds to terrorist activities. Sniffing around both these cases are the suspicious German government official Mohr, who wants Issa in custody as soon as possible, and trigger-happy CIA agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), whilst Issa’s lawyer Annabel is pulled between serving her client and obeying the government, and the ever reptilian Willem Dafoe holds the key to Bachmann’s success as a slithery banker.
The most striking thing about A Most Wanted Man - other than Hoffman’s excellent and restrained performance - is just how beautifully composed its visuals are throughout. Although Corbijn’s insistence on handheld cameras leaves the frame irritatingly shaky, his photographer’s eye is working overtime, capturing the architectural beauty of Hamburg’s high-rises and the noirish shadows of German urban nighttime. Whilst this is clearly Hoffman’s film, and he anchors it much in the way Gary Oldman did in Tinker Tailor, the supporting cast are all rather strong (apart from Wright who seems to just be rehashing her House Of Cards character), although not quite at the astonishing level of those surrounding Oldman, and almost all of zem seem to have zer beste fake German accent at hand. It’s just unfortunate that, despite being in an adaptation of the work of a masterful writer, the cast aren’t afforded a tight script. In fact, the film barely qualifies as a thriller, moving at a pace much more befitting the drama genre, and taking its time even then. Whilst absorbing and gripping, it feels almost as if there’s an ingredient missing; quite what it might be escapes me.
The equivalent of an eleventh album from a band two decades into their career (basically, the Manics’ Futurology from earlier this year); A Most Wanted Man doesn’t really bring anything really new to the spy game, but it’s an enjoyable, solid offering and a must-see for anyone remotely fond of the work of Hoffman.