Thursday, March 19, 2009

One from the beards

This is the original text of my latest review for ITM, which can be found here.

Future Disco: A Guide To 21st Century Disco (Azuli)

No longer the sole province of obscure, oddly named and bearded Norwegians, nu-disco and its deep house and indie-dance cousins have made a mark on the club scene that extends well beyond small sweaty cult nights and the darkened siderooms of heaving warehouse events.

And yet the scene is still small enough that you can pack many of the key tracks and artists of the year into one neatly programmed collection. This is exactly what mainstream UK house label Azuli has done in releasing
Future Disco, aptly subtitled “A Guide To 21st Century Disco”.

Starting with
Greg Wilson’s bumpy edit of “Secret Sunday Lover” the comp starts in deeper territories, milking the likes of Toby Tobias, Tensnake and Ilija Rudman to prove its taste credentials. Then, even after the misstep of the outrageously cheesy “Paris” by Friendly Fires (here unable to be saved by Aeroplane on remix duties), the mix moves in more uplifting directions, dropping the cheeky DJ Koze remix of the equally mischievous “Minimal”, and the insanely catchy Unabombers remix of Crazy P’s “Love On The Line”.

There is also tougher fare:
Runaway’s “Brooklyn Club Jam” as well as Hercules & Love Affair remixing Chaz Jankel (more old school jack than new school disco, this one). And in true Balearic fashion the collection nudges some psyche rock influences before cranking the BPMs right down for a blissful and chilled concluding section.

Despite many of the tracks being big hits, at least by nu-disco standards, it’d be churlish to complain. Quality control remains high throughout and even the fact that this is a “mixed compilation” done not by a leading scene DJ but a nameless studio boffin doesn’t detract from the fact that a reasonable effort has been made to program the set.

As a work of art or trainspotter’s paradise (the latter a seeming prerequisite for being taken seriously in the disco underground),
Future Disco falls well short of the mark. But as a useful and entertaining primer on the scene as it stands in 2008-9 it really wins out. Hopefully it will encourage listeners to dig deeper into a sound that is starting to really take off.


Ignition – Secret Sunday Lover (Greg Wilson Edit)
Panthers – Goblin city (Holy Ghost! Extended Disco Dub Mix)
Toby Tobias – The Feeling (Vinyl Version)
Tensnake – Congolal
Friendly Fires – Paris (Aeroplane Remix)
Ilija Rudman – Ocean Colour
Matias Aguayo – Minimal (DJ Koze Remix)
Wild Rumpus feat. Beardyman – Rock The Joint (Reverso 68 Remix)
Chaz Jankel – Get Myself Together (Hercules & Love Affair Herc Bump Mix)
Runaway – Brooklyn Club Jam (L.S.B. Baqueira Jam Mix)
Crazy P – Love On The Line (Unabombers Vocal Mix)
Holy Ghost! – Hold On
Franz Ferdinand – Ulysses (Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve Re-animation)
Motorcycle Boy - Motorcycle Theme (Fabrizio Mammarella Edit)
Low Motion Disco – The Low Murderer Is Out At Night
Marius VĂ„reid – Skumle Planer

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

All along the watchtower

It would, of course, be impossible to keep fans of the seminal (and genre-capping) graphic novel Watchmen completely happy. I should know because I'm one of them. 

For a kid weaned on costumed vigilantes, this was a pivotal moment in my obsession with the comic book medium. It was also one of those "final word" experiences that killed superheroes for me, as I expect creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons wanted it to. Here were heroes taken to a realistic logical conclusion--complex human beings with deep character flaws and sordid motivations, and embedded in a world of real politics, social divisions and perpetual conflict. Yet a funny world because in it, to paraphrase Karl Marx, supermen make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing.

Moore and Gibbons succeeded not just in deconstructing the given notions of heroism and evil embodied in the genre, they also created an almost impossibly complex narrative structure by milking every last technical and artistic device that a comic book could deliver: symmetrical panel arrangements, overlapping dialogue, stories within stories, dense symbolic imagery mirroring the foreground action, and the decentralisation of the heroics in favour of detailed social and character observations. While on recent re-reading the effect is sometimes too much all at once, the artistry often being pummelled into submission by the technical genius, there is little doubt that Watchmen remains one of the great comics (er, "graphic novels") of all time.

So what about Zack Snyder's long and long-anticipated filmic adaptation? Well, it is nothing if not ambitious, successfully conveying most of the comic's complex 12-issue plot in 160 minutes. And it is visually spectacular, utilising CGI to replicate the sweeping vision of the original. 

But there the praise must stop, because fidelity to source material soon becomes a dead weight for Snyder as he can only roughly sketch not just the complicated social and political commentary of the original, but the characters themselves. He allows them to remain at the level of cipher, with the notable exception of the disturbed Rorschach (Jackie Earle Hailey, a long way from The Bad News Bears here), who almost manages to hold the film together in a way he didn't need to in the comic.

Worse, Snyder's bombastic approach seems to contradict one of the central thematic drivers of both novel and film: that we are seeing real people in a weird but still recognisable world. He cannot resist making the fights so comic book that you would be forgiven for thinking the vigilantes all have superpowers. So Dr Manhattan, the only one with supernormal abilities, becomes just a more spectacular version of his comrades and his impact on geopolitics seems less plausible than the story tells us it is. And when Ozymandias pulls off an amazing feat to save himself in the final scenes it is less shocking because he already seems physically invulnerable.

Yet such changes (and the markedly altered ending) don't seem to be about a director interpreting a revered work, rather finding technical fixes for problems posed by the original. Unfortunately for Snyder the comic was a triumph of comic book technique, and no film adaptation was ever going to be able to tweak those "unfilmable" elements. Instead of taking a chance and making something that was true to his own vision as well as the comic's conceits and themes, Snyder has succumbed to the fans' anxiety that he would change too much. 

He will now go down as having succeeded very well in a superficial sketch but delivered only a minimum of artistry. By being a slave to Moore and Gibbons' product he's betrayed their drive for artistic excellence, ironically selling himself short by refusing to try to escape from under their long creative shadow.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Same as it ever was?

Disclaimer: Talking Heads are my favourite band. Ever. But I never saw them live (their last tour of Australia was in the early 1980s), with the closest I got being Jerry Harrison's tour in 1988. And with David Byrne's later solo work leaving me somewhat cold there wasn't much to pull me to one of his many forays to Sydney.

But in the wake of his new collaboration with Brian Eno, Byrne's current tour promised a focus on all their work together... not just the legendary trio of Talking Heads albums Eno co-produced but their seminal and ridiculously brilliant My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. So in a last-minute rush of blood I stumped up for a good seat at the Opera House's Concert Hall. And I was not disappointed.

With Byrne, uber-tight band, on-point backup singers and three bouncy, energetic contemporary dancers (!) all dressed in immaculate white, the scenario was visually enticing--although, despite all the onstage action the main man is a performance artwork on his own. Ill-served by some sound problems in the notoriously acoustically-challenged venue (for the first half the music seemed to get lost in the rafters), Byrne nevertheless settled into alternating new material with classics, the vast majority bearing the Eno imprint.

This unfortunately highlighted the limitations of the new album: its winsome folky simplicity lacking the punch of the best Heads material. But it hardly mattered because the classics were more than enough to make up for any hiccups. From when "I Zimbra" was slammed out early, the energy, complexity and drive of vintage-era Byrne were in full evidence.

This was music made for dancing and thinking at the same time--a tougher task than walking and chewing gum, but the essence of New York's early 80s post-punk/post-disco collision. A heady stew of African polyrhythms, indie guitar and jittering melodies, a bridge between CBGBs, the Paradise Garage and early bloc parties, and yet something more. Byrne played the Heads material straight out of the Stop Making Sense handbook, when the band was at the peak of its powers. And dance we did, despite the restrictive seating and overly serious Opera House ambience.

It was great to hear some post-Eno numbers, as well as a track off Byrne's underrated Catherine Wheel soundtrack. And when "Once In A Lifetime" brought the crowd to their feet it was transcendent, the interpretative dancing onstage creating a link between the familiar concert movie arrangement and the bizarreness of the original music video. Through three well-judged encores, Byrne and his crew kept the excitement going and a satisfied audience lapped it up.

There was no nostalgia on the night (Byrne seems averse to such sentiments), and so this trip down memory lane, much like Grace Jones' recent effort, seemed as relevant and immediate as back in the day. Not quite scaling the heights Grace managed (she being blessed with stronger new songs and an unparalleled performative talent) but essential stuff indeed.

Songlist @ Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, 2.2.09

Strange Overtones*
I Zimbra
One Fine Day*
Help Me Somebody
Houses In Motion
My Big Nurse*
My Big Hands (Fall Through The Cracks)??
Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)
Poor Boy*
Crosseyed And Painless
Life Is Long*
Once In A Lifetime
Life During Wartime
I Feel My Stuff*

Take Me To The River
The Great Curve

Memories Can't Wait
Burning Down The House

Everything That Happens*

* Songs from the new Byrne/Eno album