Monday, March 29, 2010

Pop history, Pakistan

A painstakingly compiled socio-political history of the popular music scene in Pakistan. Very informative. Someone should do the same for this place, even though, one must admit, our rock scene doesn't hold a candle to theirs.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Commerce and Culture: Avatar, Hurt Locker and the Oscars

Well, I got some of my predictions right (Actor, Director, both Supportings). I was happy to get some of them wrong (Best Actress for Sandra Bullock). And I'm convinced that some decisions, even though they prove me wrong, actually prove that the Academy, and, if you want to look beyond the Oscars, this entire awards season, is even more wrong.

I am, of course, aiming directly at 'The Hurt Locker' - which is a shifty target, and not only because it stars the Special Forces. This is not a film that's easy to fault. It is taut and gritty, and perpetually poised on a razor-thin edge. It has uniformly competent performances. We have no way of knowing whether it is an accurate reflection of a bomb defuser's life in Iraq today, but it certainly seems like it could be. So where is it lacking, and why did other films, 'Avatar' for instance, deserve the silverware more?

The danger in honouring the prevailing national sentiment, as I fear the Academy has done with 'Hurt Locker', instead of simply choosing the best film on display, is that posterity judges you harshly. In five years, critics will look back on the parched-earth despair of 'Hurt Locker' and wonder what it was that made it seem like such a landmark movie. Ordinary folk will simply have forgotten it. Give it ten years and it'll be a trivia question. Why am I so sure? It's like this - there are a hundred different ways to make a movie great, but in the end, if it isn't memorable for one reason or another, its fate as an also-ran in the history books is sealed. 'The Hurt Locker' has little in terms of an afterglow, which is fine for a war movie. But does it offer the viewer anything else to remember it by? Its one-sided view of life in Iraq denies us a broader perspective, and we learn nothing new about the American viewpoint. The ground it covers has already been combed over, in movies about Korea, Vietman, the Gulf War. We know that good sense is replaced by testosterone on the ground ('Platoon'), that American soldiers having little knowledge or respect for cultures alien to them ('Full Metal Jacket'), that the effects of war on a soldier's psyche are disastrous ('Flags of our Fathers'). The 'Hurt Locker' only seems to suggest that America's military disasters, past and present, have a lot in common, because the movies based on them are repeating themselves.

Did 'Avatar' deserve more? It certainly had a lot going for it. It was a truly transportive experience, with or without the 3-D glasses. For all the hoopla about the poineering nature of the technology used, the results were truly gorgeous to look at, like Neverland crossed with an Amazonian forest. The central message - anti-war, pro-conservation - wasn't subtle, but was no less of the moment as 'bring home our soldiers'. Its flaws - a weak script, plot twists you can see coming a mile off - may have cost it the applause of the serious, but then this was a film built to entertain. By missing out at the Oscars (and cleaning up at the box office) Avatar may one day find itself listed alongside other pioneering films that just happened to also make a lot of money, such as the first films in the Matrix or Star Wars series.

I doubt James Cameron will mind.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fancast #4: Begin the Begin

Warren Zevon – 'Excitable Boy'

Warren Zevon has existed on the outer edges of my musical consciousness for a while now. I knew, for example, that he had teamed up with three-quarters of R.E.M to form the Hindu Love Gods. I knew he was a boozer and a hipster, highly rated within the critical and musical fraternities. And recently, I heard one of his songs on the soundtrack to ‘Funny People’. It was called ‘Numb as a Statue’, it was wise and funny, and made me want to hear more.

‘Excitable Boy’ was Zevon’s second album, produced by Jackson Browne, one of his earliest champions. I finished hearing it for the first time today, and it confused me, because for once I couldn’t bring myself to elect favourites or break this album up into separate tracks. Its not that one couldn’t find weak moments on this album if one looked. It’s just that I had no will to ferret them out. Instead, I unashamedly fell in love with every aspect of it at first sight - Zevon’s writing, alternately tender and unsettling, his old-before-his-years voice, the excellence of the players, the liner notes by the always-dependable David Fricke. The sound is ‘70s L.A. country-rock, with more than a hint of Bob Seger. And the last word must go to the production – it makes the most of every instrument (the way the best rock ‘n roll always does). The surface it creates has a deceptive smoothness, ensuring that the songs roll more than they rock and the album goes through successive listens before listeners tap into the heart of Zevon’s darkness.

Mavis Staples – First two albums

I bought this one for two reasons – one, it was part of a sale and two, it had the Stax/Volt label on it and Steve Cropper was producer. This hinted at the possible presence of the best backing band in musical history, Booker T and the MGs (Cropper was their guitarist). And I wasn’t wrong – the MGs back Staples, that insistent voice at the heart of the Staple Singers, on ten cuts here. Mavis Staples was the most gospel-sounding of all her R&B compatriots. There may have been better vocalists (Aretha Franklin tops the list) but no one could make simple pop songs sound like they were being sung in church the way Mavis Staples could.

Her two debut albums fit into this exact template, pop numbers that sound like R&B, R&B numbers that sound like gospel. Despite the fact that the songs have been picked and chosen, and not written exclusively for these albums, they exhibit a surprising level of sonic unity. This can be partly attributed to the fact that Staples picks up a theme – unrequited love – and runs with it for the entire length of the record. But more important, to my mind, is the way Staples gives every song her all, and makes every tune sound uniquely hers. Sometimes the material lets her down, but she never lets the listener down.

The Rolling Stones – '12 X 5'

I recently did something which I never though I’d be able to bring myself to. It’s an unwritten rule that Beatles fans don’t buy Stones albums and Stones fans don’t have baths (I’m kidding. I don’t have that many baths either). Anyway, after around two decades of unrelenting fandom, I felt I was secure enough in my dedication to the Beatles to attempt picking up something by the greatest rivals. Not that I hadn’t heard Stones records before, I’d just avoided buying them. That horrible voice inside kept stopping me, the one that says ‘What if you were wrong all these years…’

I am happy to report that I wasn’t wrong. I have heard the Beatles since, and they’ve lost none of their greatness in my eyes. I’m also happy to say ‘12 X 5’ is a fantastic album. Its early days for the Stones, and Jagger doesn’t have his famous leer down yet, but the band is simply smoking, track after track. It’s plain to see that they were instinctively brilliant players from the very beginning, Richards and Wyman and Watts and Jones, the same way the Beatles were instinctively brilliant songwriters and vocalists. There are three Jaggers/Richards tracks, but the finest moments come courtesy purveyors of no-nonsense R&B; names like Bobby Womack (‘It’s all over now’, an early hit for the Stones), Dale Hawkins (a clattering version of his ‘Suzie Q’) and Wilson Pickett, whose ‘If you need me’ may also have provided the basis for the McCartney-penned ‘Oh Darling’ some years later. All in all – driving, exciting, invigorating rock ‘n roll. And coming from a Beatles fan – you better believe it!


Played ‘In Rainbows’ by Radiohead recently, and it felt like I was hearing it for the first time. I’d missed it all earlier - the melodies hidden beneath the surface, the rhythmic inventiveness, the strange, sad beauty of songs like ‘Weird Fishes/Apreggi’ and ‘House of Cards’.

Talib Kweli, ‘Get by (remix). Built around a piano plus Nina Simone sample, and featuring a breathtaking roster of rappers in quick succession - Mos Def, Jay-Z, a then-unsigned Kanye West, Busta Rhymes and Kweli himself – it’s the most persuasive, flowing rap song I’ve heard.

Phoenix, ‘Lisztomania. 50 points for being a buoyant French version of The Strokes. 100 points for thinking up a song title like ‘Lisztomania’. Another 100 for calling the album ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’.

On repeat: Bert Jansch, ‘Angie
On my wishlist: Vampire Weekend, 'Contra'
On my laptop: It Might Get Loud’ (Docu with Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White. I’m scared to even play it)

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Enlighten and Co.

A little over a year back, I wrote about how the DVD was slowly revolutionising viewing habits in India. The context in my mind at the time was world cinema, and I mentioned Palador and Lumiere as potential game-changers. Now its 2010, and we have what might be considered as a somewhat crowded field. Shemaroo has improbably but enthusiastically dived in with their new World Cinema division. Ultra pitched in with a couple of rare British masterpieces ('This sporting life', 'The Red Shoes') at throwaway prices. So did Enlighten, who for me may be the most exciting of the lot. They've expanded their collection to include masterpieces, celebrated and forgotten, from Hollywood and the UK. I have already bought their re-issues of Wyler's 'The best years of our lives', Renoir's masterpiece 'The rules of the game' and Buster Keaton's 'The General'. In addition, I have 'Duck Soup' by the Marx Brothers, 'The lady from Shanghai' by Orson Welles, and the seminal gangster classics 'Public Enemy' and 'Scarface' in my sights. John Ford fans should also take note - I saw half a dozen titles of his when I last checked. Their packaging has improved tremendously, their DVDs now include extras (The Marx Brother's one has 'Animal Crackers' as well) and the price is the same as when they started out. So I guess it wouldn't hurt to say thank you, and hope, in the same spirit as Neil Young singing for Conan O'Brien at the end of his too-brief tenure, long may you run.