5/30/12

Moonface live, Shoreditch 29.05.12


Spencer Krug likes playing dress-up. Sometimes he is Wolf Parade and sometimes he is Sunset Rubdown, and now he's Moonface -- "the last moniker I have left to exploit." Throughout he sounds like Spencer Krug: Bowie at his most lofty -- the moh-ho-ha voice Tony Visconti grew like a moth, keeping it in darkness and feeding it with trapped mikes and glam arrangements; a Patrick Wolf style before PW became, well, comfortable. At the ripe old age of 35 (thank fuck: just when I was starting to feel old) Spence sings like he means it and like you're meant to be there in case something new happens or maybe just goes wrong. Tonight he was new and things went perfectly. In fact, they went better than I'd idly wondered. I thought Moonface would be good but dude. Srsly. There are gigs and performances and then there are moments of confluence, where what you like and what is indisputably good music overlaps with the third zone of timing, and this was one of those.

Moonface were remarkable.

Krug stripped down to organ and rhythm box for his first Moonface release. He does vinyl and CD and has a record label -- there are a few tracks for download out there but he dwells not on the Soundcloud, as if holding out for an old-fashioned career. Pavement played Kentish Town a few months back and it was all very college singalong: grown men in skate shoes pogoing to 'Wild Thing' before sloping off for a beer and a curry with nothing risked at all. I saw Jane's Addiction as their own dedicated covers band: forget it. I saw NIN who were great, and spry, but boxed in, ironically. No matter how wildly Trent swung his arms he knew that the keyboard, with one touch of his finger, would generate more clashing white noise than any guitar: his physical gestures were theater. The new bands know it too, and have retreated to the high-timbre, Powerbook-sized tinkle of sentimental pop. Italians do do it better and music has rested there for about 24 months now, sparkling in the sunlight: sugary melodies, bitter themes, Peak Girl... while bubbling under we've had the real boy bands: the East Coast baby prog sound that began with Animal Collective through to MGMT and Washed Out, the sound that someone once described as "Dennis Wilson falling downstairs." (Were they being clever or not? Dennis Wilson always sounded like that, and he fell downstairs all the time.)

But it was all a bit... adolescent. You admired it in the way you admired Sofia Coppola: nice kid, she can do anything she wants. There wasn't much you could get your teeth into or identify with, let alone rock along to. So we settled for the heartlessness of the Dandy Warhols, or the retro-mainstream of The Killers, or who the fuck knows. Pop was dead: there was only indie, and the other stuff; and rock -- that was a collectible up on blocks in the garage. Don't touch dad's things...

When I listened to Moonface online I liked them immediately, but not in a big way. The arrangements were long and plodding but I haven't heard synths march like that since The Associates' Fourth Drawer Down, so we were officially in Yay-Land: the 80s but the good 80s. A deep heat. Earnest monologues that keep up with Ida No (Hey, Ida!)... Sweeping electro landscapes... Trent Reznor pissed-off, Washed Out-loving, MGMT-ironic. When Spence sang 'Talking heads make me miss my friends' he was referencing the band:
Everything is fleeting, baby / Even the sadness that the late summer gave me / Our dreamy memories of the 1980s / First we sing falsetto, and then we sing lazy
So when Krug / Moonface came to London I thought, sure, I'll go see. Cargo in Shoreditch, all very East End; that'll be cool, that'll be fun. The crowd thought the same, all standing very straight. And then the band came on and... lawdy.

Knocked me flat.

A real critic would write the songs down in the proper order. Emotionally it went from (1) this is good to (b) this is, wow, this is really good to (iii) Srsly? this is amazing and am I the only one getting this or am I just very old / high / up for it / all of the above? Structurally the songs were the same as the ones you may or may not be allowed to hear on YouTube: big, simple chordal shifts, textured, with willowy vocals laced on the top -- nothing you can't get your head around. But live, fuck me: Moonface were amazing. So amazing that I kept thinking, well, they can't be that good. But everything I've seen or heard up until now tells me that yes sir, they are. I think this is their moment. Or rather, I think the wave is just starting to rise.

We haven't had pop for so long. We haven't had pop that mattered in the way, say, that New Gold Dream did back then. We haven't had pop for a long time that said anything, and we certainly haven't had pop that felt much, and we sure as fuck haven't had pop that could fill a stadium. But now, suddenly, you think, yup. It's here. And it's that simple.

Moonface (Krug) was playing with Finnish "rock band" Siinai. Technically he's the vocals and they are the band: razor sharp drummer (80s dance, march beat, goth, rat-a-tat-tat post punk), keyboards (head tossing), guitar (present), bass (very), all grinding and restrained... But they overlap, and good luck prying them apart. When they were all playing the one chord they made no apology for it: here it is and, well, yes: over to you. They played most of Heartbreaking Bravery, which is a brilliant album but they made it better than that. Online 'Yesterday's Fire' sounds like another (very good) Placebo single; live, it was Station to Station big. Online 'Headed for the Door' sounds like Alan Rankine finger-banging: live, it was monstrous -- lush, majestic, liquid, cut-throat Reznor. 'Lay Your Cheek On Down' is 18-karat lovely in its digital version but in a space with a ceiling on it, it was post-Spector girlband apocalyptic: everything the Jesus and Mary Chain aspired to but never actually achieved.

After that, it got better. 'Teary Eyes and Bloody Lips' ("make you look like Stevie Nicks"), 'Shitty City'... An hour and ten later the audience were standing around numbed, and the guitarist was looking slightly perturbed, and Krug looked as if he could go for another set, and people shuffled out. 'What did you think of that?' I kept asking people, and they were generally pleased. But I couldn't help shaking the feeling that we'd all just seen something remarkable, whether we were aware of it or not. I think Moonface are the new thing. After several years of pop bands playing around the edges, this is a band with everything it needs to occupy the center. Go feed yourself. Feed them.

5/29/12

The Big Snatch


On Sunday I caught a screening of Mélodie en sous-sol (1963) released in English as Any Number Can Win and also, wonderfully, The Big Snatch. The print was widescreen (2.35:1) and black & white. YouTube hosts colour snippets that look like a digital treatment but these may have been contemporary. The film is clearly trying to match itself with Hollywood and dipping Alain Delon in what looks like pancake batter might have been part of the effort. Forget them: the monochrome version is better -- gorgeous, in fact, in the way that old & white films are: a holiday for the eye.

Mélodie is a casino heist and much of the action unfolds in sunlight, from the opening shot on a bright morning in Paris Gare du Nord to the poolside dénouement in Cannes, and the intermediate tones are appropriate to the story. It doesn't paint its exotic locales in the sinister velvet-black of, say, Notorious (1946). It's a noir-lite: a large grey. When Francis (Delon) gives up the wheel of his Alfa to his Swedish girlfriend, she drives at a sensible speed.

Critics have noted the similarity between Mélodie en sous-sol and Rififi (1955) -- as if any heist movie could escape the comparison -- but its true antecedent is The Killing (1956), right down to the (spoiler alert) ending. In the final scene of The Killing Kubrick's thieves are undone when the money is blown away on the airport tarmac: in Mélodie the bills float gracefully to the surface. Francis's mentor Charles (Jean Gabin), surrounded by police, can only watch for fear of giving himself away; Francis, shamed, simply turns his back, and the cops rush past, unaware of the thieves right under their noses. The construction of these final moments is stark and modern and genuinely tense-making: as good as anything De Palma or David Fincher has served up.

In between lie the delights of any film older than you are: the glimpses of street scenes, the chugging cigarettes (Francis's mother scolds him for smoking), the measures of drink (for a sunbathing tipple, fill half a tumbler with scotch, add two small ice cubes and serve. Ye gods), the casino dancing girls with real bodies and action sequences without stunt doubles. In one lengthy unbroken shot Delon climbs out of a hatch, runs up a thirty-degree tiled roof and monkey-bars along a crenellated cement facade twenty feet off the ground wearing a tuxedo and leather dress shoes; later he drops ten feet, forgets the bag he is carrying and hops back up to retrieve it, like a gymnast.

Because this is a noir, it's all for naught. The point is not that the heist goes wrong but how, and why, and director Henri Verneuil renders the fatal misstep with the same balletic ease. You truly won't see it coming. Mélodie en sous-sol is far from the greatest noir you could see but then again, noir is not about individual achievement. It's about being part... of... a... team.

Mélodie en sous-sol was based on the novel Once a Thief by John Trinian, who died in 1974. By day Trinian was Zekial Marko, a successful Hollywood screenwriter who worked for shows such as The Rockford Files and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. By night, in the 1960s as Trinian, he published a small, eclectic set of mystery and crime paperbacks including North Beach Girl and Scandal On The Sand. Could one have a cooler obituary?

5/24/12

Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone...


EW reports that fans report that the trailer for Baz Luhrmann's 3D version of The Great Gatsby is misspelled. Specifically, the world famous typing error "The Ziegfeld Follies" is written as "The Zeigfeld Follies". Which is a terrible indictment on our times until you remember that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a famously bad speller. Which is very meta. Which is better than 3D, any day.

(Disclosure: Still not going to see it.)

5/23/12

Words and pictures


Jonathan King and I have a new comic out, City Lights II: Planet of Fear. I wrote it, he drew it. You can read it online along with its predecessor, City Lights at Jonathan's comic blog The Brighter Future.

This project is becoming a fun little series to do. It's cheaper than making films and a break from writing prose: write the characters, action and dialogue, and ping that off / against the images. It would have cost a small fortune to print this in the old days and the night scenes would have gone to black. Now we can play with the whole digital paintbox, for next to nothing.

5/17/12

A white rad ride, so glam it's absurd




Johnny Jewel has at least three bands: The Chromatics, who are really Ruth Radelet, and Desire, who are really Megan Louise, and Glass Candy, who are really Ida No. There's more to it than that, of course, but the vocals are each group's distinguishing feature. Radelet is on edge and Louise is more laid back. Ida No, who with Jewel is (#3) Glass Candy sings in a very high, late-night key like a flipped-out Maria Muldaur and raps like Prince (i.e. badly). 'Beautiful Object' is the one on high-rotate. When asked what she missed most when she was on tour Ida said:
My cat. The smell of the air here. The quietness of the night-time. The wet ground which helps settle my nervous system.
The definitive Chromatics song is probably 'Tick of the Clock' -- a phat, minimal click track in the tradition of Pink Floyd's 'Heart Beat, Pig Meat' and Cabaret Voltaire's 'Sluggin' for Jesus'. My favourite Radelet number is 'I Want Your Love': airy, frail, bumping into things. Girl is wrapped too tight for Vietnam. She is also nervous about singing live:
I am almost never satisfied with my own performance, so it is nice to hear that people are saying good things! In the beginning I was very nervous, because I didn’t have any experience singing in front of people. So, for me, the goal has always been to get to the point where I am completely comfortable on stage, and I am a lot closer to that point now than when we first started playing shows last spring. I don’t think anything we do live is too thought-out. We just try to be ourselves and give our all to the music.
My favourite Desire track is 'Don't Call', not least of all for the lyrics:
You're gone
And babe that's a good thing
I'm still here
And looking for something
To come along.
Writing pop lyrics is like laying bricks: if you do the job right, it looks like it's been there forever. Says Megan:
I was reading on this tour Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho, a love story between a Brazilian prostitute and a French Swiss painter. They discover pure love by not drawing any limits to their romance and letting themselves be free birds. As for music Lionel Richie’s All Night Long has been a theme song for this first European tour! Francoise Hardy always makes me smile and T-Pain, Lil Wayne and Kid Cudi put me in a party mood before shows! As for movies, Marley and Me was the last movie I watched that made me cry because it was real life.
She's from Canada.

5/15/12

Skeletons


Shirley Manson interviewed in NYMag:
When a major label works at its absolute best, there's no other system like it to push a career into the stratosphere. But that system is not for everybody. There's a whole slew of artists that are making incredible music that just don't enjoy that kind of support because they just can't tolerate the beast on a moral, political [level]. We lose out on what I call the "fragile artists." It's all the strong, genetically well-bred people who rise to the top, even in music. All the freaks and the geeks get thrown into the streets and forgotten about. I look back at all the great artists that I fell in love with, people like Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Patti Smith — all of these people would never have had careers in this kind of climate.
Disclosure: still would.

5/11/12

Something's happened


Jon Spaihts talks about writing (i.e. researching and conceptualising) the script for Prometheus:
I wrote the first draft of that screenplay in three and a half weeks, which is a personal record. And then, I was just in the shoot with Ridley for awhile. I would write a draft, and then I would sit in the room with Ridley Scott and his two lieutenants, at that time, and we would talk about the story for weeks at a time. Ridley was tireless and constantly drawing. He has a fierce visual imagination, and was constantly throwing curve balls at the story that I would then need to adjust to the logic of my universe. We worked through five drafts like that, over many months.
And, also on Collider, Damon Lindelof discusses being hired to rewrite the writing:
I thought it was really cool. It was not at all what I expected it to be. But obviously they were giving it to me for a reason. And this is one of those situations where you're given no advance sense of what they like, what they don't like, you just have to walk out on the plank and say, Here is my fundamental reaction to this thing. So when I finished it I went into my office and I wrote an email. [...] I wrote maybe a four or five paragraph email saying here are all the things I love about it, I think there are some incredible set pieces here, I love the fundamental idea behind the movie, I feel like it's a cool think piece. BUT I think it's relying a bit too heavily on the Alien stuff [...] and I just feel that your idea is so strong and the characters can be made so strong that we don't need any of that stuff. We can present iterations of that stuff in different ways.
The pre-release publicity in for Alien (1979) -- trust me, I remember it so well I can practically quote it verbatim -- was all about the "look" of the film, how things had to look and feel "right." Whereas the pre-release publicity for Prometheus (2012) is almost entirely about story: the characters, the plot, how the script was developed, how it evolved. That's a sea change.

In the 80s there was a lot of talk about "the death of the author." In the 90s and early 00's there was a lot of blather about metafiction. 2012 and the author is still here, and the great medium of the writer, TV, is enjoying a golden age. Maybe movies are catching up.

(Pic: Mr. Kerry Brown)
POSTSCRIPT: We were wrong. We were so wrong.

I keep this film journal largely for myself and to take my mind off, uh, writing. I write all day and think about writing all night so it's fun to post instead about pictures or music. But the experience of watching, or rather sitting in front of Prometheus while Prometheus thundered past sent me back to thinking about writing again.

Story was indeed paramount in Prometheus: I counted at least six of them, cut from different drafts and sprinkled across a canvas as broad as the universe itself. It was a movie from the director of Gladiator: big notes, operatic, visually concise and frigid. Some moments were perfect, others completely off-key. Scott has referred to the beast's final iteration as the deacon: the film was a curate's egg.

All the time I was watching I kept thinking: Alien was a script written by four pairs of good hands: Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, who came up with the (Lovecraftian) storyline, title, creature and infestation / chest burster idea; and Walter Hill and David Giler, who stripped the screenplay back to Western-style tough guy dialogue (the last 15 minutes of the film are almost silent) and added the android / corporate bad guy subplot.

Crucially, all that writing was done before the director came on board. For Prometheus, Scott developed the script with the writers working under him.

Big difference.

I wonder what else was left squirming on the cutting room floor. I bet there's a four-hour movie in there that would pop your socks.

5/8/12

The Fantastic Mr Knox


Daniel Knox is one of my favourite musicians. I first saw him at Jarvis Cocker's Twisted Christmas at the Barbican in 2008. Jarvis 'n' that were good but Mr Knox rocked my socks. I've typed this before but imagine Captain Riker singing Kurt Weill and you pretty much have it.

In these desperate times of Peak Girl*, Knox is all guy: baleful, dark, Orson Welles-baritoned. His songs are in a melancholy drinking key but his lyrical narratives range from deeply romantic to laugh-out-loud funny. Knox came to us via David Lynch (literally –- he composed the soundtrack to Inland Empire) to tell stories from a Warren Zevon / Edward Hopper / Damon Runyon sort of world -- the place where Tom Waits used to hang out before he started clog-dancing with maracas.

Knox has a digital double A-side out: 'To Make You Stay' and 'Blue Car.' They are both pretty wonderful but 'Blue Car' is fantastic. You can get them from Knox's Bandcamp site. My friend tells me that's how all the young people listen to things nowadays.


* More of that later.

(Pic: John Atwood.)

5/4/12

I followed her through the crowd to the corner that had been left empty




Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts.
-- Stephen King

When I was working on The Names I devised a new method -- new to me, anyway. When I finished a paragraph, even a three-line paragraph, I automatically went to a fresh page to start the new paragraph. No crowded pages. This enabled me to see a given set of sentences more clearly. It made rewriting easier and more effective. The white space on the page helped me concentrate more deeply on what I'd written.
-- Don DeLillo

I dig film noir. The great theme of film noir is, You're fucked.
-- James Ellroy

5/3/12

In a lonely place


TextWrangler, my favourite writing-very-fast application, has been improved, with predictable results. The 4.0 version now has features I don't need, runs just that little bit slower and has a bona fide bug: the backspace / delete key sometimes doesn't work (not a hardware problem: I can't reproduce the fault in other applications). How I would like to not be thinking about this, or writing about it, or tooling around the web looking for an old installer for TextWrangler 3.5.3.

Woody Allen still writes on the same typewriter he bought when he was a young man. The 35mm cameras I bought when I was my teens still take better photos than my digital camera or for that matter my phone. I gave up my last Powerbook after a long hard seven years because the screen was so dim it was like typing on a winter night but the machine still works just fine. In fact, the old TextWrangler is on it, so thinking about it, I can simply copy the old software over to the new Mac (MBA 11", a lovely writing machine which I would also be happy to use for the next seven years, or twelve for that matter). Where would I be had I not taken the old man's caution of putting things aside, just in case?

This week I spent a day fixing those groovy Blogger redirects (see previously) and another few hours cursing Google, which now delivers search results in a way that is thwartingly local. If you're looking up something on Google maps in Indonesia in English, it shows you the map labelled in Thai. But if you're in Australia when you type in a search for something in America, you get Australian site results first, whether you ask for them or not. There is a way around the latter -- utterly unintuitive -- and probably for the former, but how I would like to not be thinking about that as well.

By pressing personalisation "services" on users Google is contributing to what one commentator has called the cableisation of the internet: the reduction of the universal set of content into a localised subset shaped by fear and commercial interest. Goodbye World Wide Web, hello My Little Corner. The concept of a walled garden was once pejorative but now we're filtering on Facebook and burning through the world on Twitter 140 characters at a time like a chain smoker stubbing out half-finished cigarettes the idea seems less threatening, if not attractive.

I don't need the web to find out what I already know. If it's online I'm grown-up enough to look at it. I want my laptop to work like a typewriter and my phone to work like a phone and my camera to have shutter speed and aperture and focus: if I need to get closer to the subject I can walk there. I would just like things to function. And I would like to not be thinking about this. The only reason I am is that there's writing I need to get done. Whatever happened to welcome distractions?

Postscript: TextWrangler 3.5.3 reinstalled. Finally. You can go back to it here.