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One of the great things about not having a TV is that you don’t get sucked into brain-drain channel surfing and so the only reality show I have ever been a rabid fan of is RuPaul’s Drag Race. I first discovered it in 2013, reviewed it here, then recommended it to everyone I thought would appreciate it, creating a few new fans in the process.
Drag is an art form, a unique expression of a personal creative vision, and the show has given me a look into a world I knew nothing about before. I am often blown away by the queens’ charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent (for an explanation of this phrase and a general resource for newbies, this is a comprehensive guide).
The Lipsynch For Your Life is the great leveller of Drag Race, the last chance to prove the queen deserves to stay in the competition. Stellar performances have come out of left-field to save the day, and seasoned queens have unexpectedly been sent home.
Having watched all eight seasons of Drag Race more than once, my favourite lipsynch is from season four: Dida Ritz doing ‘This Will Be’ by Natalie Cole. Cole is on the panel and her reaction sums up what the viewer is feeling. Dida lives the joy and energy of the song, and she’s so on point it’s jaw-dropping. As legendary queen Latrice Royale says, ‘that is what a lipsynch for your life is…that is high-drag at its finest.’
After a sixteen year break, Australian band The Avalanches are back with Wildflower. You’ll remember them from their first album Since I Left You, which saturated the airwaves in 2000 and was notable for consisting of almost 3,500 vinyl samples.
‘Frankie Sinatra’ is the first single from Wildflower which will be released in early July. It’s a pleasingly shambolic affair, with boom-parp circus horns in the chorus and guest vocals from Danny Brown and MF Doom. The album has received early rave reviews and although I’m not totally crackers about this single I’ll be interested to hear the rest of it.
There are some songs that transcend genres, decades, and fashions, and end up being an inspiration for the ages. ‘Under Pressure’ is, as the staff in Whelan’s will tell you, one of my favourite songs to end a DJ set, and one of my favourite songs of all time.
Two geniuses on one track is rare. Freddie Mercury ranks among the superlative singers in any genre of the last century, and Bowie’s style and influence is inimitable; together they created magic. ‘Under Pressure’ is twenty-five years old this year but has the true hallmark of a classic: it sounds just as contemporary as the day it was recorded.
And the lyrics are pretty powerful:
‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
This version has been doing the social-media rounds recently, I suppose due to Bowie’s death and a renewed interest in every detail of his career. It’s the vocal track from the song, just Mercury and Bowie, no other instruments, no autotune, no bullshit, just two gifted singers at the top of their game. Do yourself a favour and check it out. It sends shivers up my spine.
The Heavy, the band that sound like they’re from New Orleans but are in fact from Bath, the band beloved of music supervisors everywhere, release their fourth studio album Hurt & the Merciless on 1st April 2016. Irish people might be familiar with their track ‘What Makes A Good Man’ from the Guinness ad, ‘Sapeurs’, which brilliantly depicts La Sape, the elegant dandies of Congo.
‘Since You Been Gone’ is the first single and the black and white video tells the story of a couple having a fight. (As a rather long aside, my jukebox brain tends to associate certain words or phrases with songs, like when I first downloaded the Hailo app and got the Foo Fighters’ song ‘Halo’ stuck in my head every time I used it. The title ‘Since You Been Gone’ has reminded me of the Kelly Clarkson pop hit, but I’m hopeful that repeated listenings to The Heavy will knock that on the head.)
I prefer the recent single ‘Turn Up’, which will be a stormer live and no doubt the soundtrack to TV shows in the near future. It has no official video yet but here’s the lyric placeholder.
So far, the two lead singles don’t indicate new territory for the band, but I’m still interested to hear the album. And when the vibe is this good, there’s something to be said for not fixing what’s not broken, right?
Bessie Smith. The Empress of the Blues. A hard-drinking, hot-tempered, stubborn, fascinating, warm woman, and a singer with a voice that sounded like she knew every sorrow in the world but decided to celebrate life anyway. A biopic of this icon is long overdue and last year HBO released Bessie, starring Queen Latifah, which covers Smith’s life from her childhood in Chattanooga in the 1900s, to just before her death in 1937 in a car accident.
Bessie adheres to the Hollywood biopic formula (including the ‘based on an incredible true story’ line in the trailer): from her poverty stricken early days raised by her sister Viola, to the hubris of the young performer overshadowing Ma Rainey, the fame and adoration, then the inevitable isolation and downward spiral.
There’s a great article on Slate by Laura Bradley on the accuracy of the film, fact versus fiction, and there are some surprises, such as the fact that Bessie really did chase the KKK away from one of her gigs, and that she was stabbed by a man she had punched for coming on to one of her girlfriends. But the film’s downfall is that it leans towards scandal and sensationalism, especially towards the end, making it feel more like a Lifetime movie than an HBO one.
The performances in Bessie make it worth watching. Mo’Nique plays Ma Rainey, a renowned blueswoman, and Bessie’s mentor and friend. Michael K. Williams is Bessie’s husband Jack Gee, a passionate man who loves her but who is volatile and manipulative. The cinematography is also gorgeous, and I adored the costume design by Michael T. Boyd, coveting every beaded flapper dress and satin chemise.
The film was twenty-two years in the making and Queen Latifah was always the first choice for the lead role so she had ample time to get under Bessie’s skin. Given that Bessie was singing during the 20s and 30s, all we have left are low-quality recordings, some photos and various biographies. From this Latifah manages to create a magnetising and complex character. Latifah recorded her own vocals for the film and she beautifully captures the power and emotion of Bessie’s voice. Latifah won the Screen Actor’s Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie and the film won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie.
Bessie Smith has been claimed as a major influence by artists as diverse as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Mahalia Jackson and Norah Jones, and Janis Joplin was such a fan that she paid for Bessie’s tombstone after her grave had gone unmarked for thirty-three years. If you want to check out the woman herself have a listen here, and watch her only film performance here, in St. Louis Blues. Enjoy!
I have posted before about some of my favourite Christmas songs, from the sublime to the ridiculous. As well as the classics, my seasonal playlist includes some jazz be-bop tunes that might not be on your radar, so here are three of my favourites in case you feel like expanding your Christmas playlist. Enjoy!
Firstly Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong doing ‘Jingle Bells’:
Secondly, Bill Evans playing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’:
And lastly, Charlie Parker playing ‘White Christmas’:
Whenever I have people over to my house I always ask them to choose the music. I do a lot of that in my professional life so it’s good to hand it over to someone else while I’m preparing dinner or opening wine. Sometimes my guests raid my iTunes and play tunes I’ve neglected and sometimes they head for Soundcloud and introduce me to music I haven’t heard.
I particularly look forward to my mate Sinead coming over as it’s her business to discover new music. It’s also of course been her lifetime passion and we have very similar taste so I always get great recommendations when she comes over.
The last time she was here, she played Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats, an artist and album I hadn’t heard. She had seen the band live and been blown away.
The album opens with ‘I Need Never Get Old’, an old-school soul stomper with a big horn section. ‘S.O.B.’ starts with handclaps and backing vocals that sound like the forgotten track from O Brother Where Are Thou. The last track ‘Mellow Out’ ends with a Van Morrison influenced vocal refrain.
The disparate influences come together to sound somehow familiar but still have a distinctive musical stamp. Rateliffe’s vocals are seasoned and heartfelt and it makes for a feel-good vibe and great listening.
I have already blogged about my Halloween DJ playlist but one of the creepiest tunes I’ve ever heard is not a tune anyone is ever going to play at a Halloween gig in Whelan’s! It comes from jazz legend Charles Mingus, a double-bass player, composer and bandleader who combined elements of be-bop, gospel and blues to create an influential sound.
The track is called ‘Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too’ and it comes from the album Let My Children Hear Music. The beginning of the track contains weird soundtrack effects, discords and a wailing trumpet and then heads into more familiar swinging big band territory before giving in to a chaotic horn section that sometimes reprises a vaudevillian circus theme and then descends into madness. It’s both disquieting and hilarious.
Of course there’s no video for the track as it was released in 1972 but here’s the original tune and if you’re creative you can make your own visuals to accompany it!
Love & Mercy, released in 2014, depicts the life of Brian Wilson, best known as a founding member of the Beach Boys, but now recognised as a musical icon in his own right. It was released in 2014, and stars Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and older Wilsons respectively, and includes Elizabeth Banks as Wilson’s second wife, Melinda Ledbetter, and Paul Giamatti as Dr. Eugene Landy in the supporting cast.
The movie skips over Wilson’s childhood, during which he endured trauma and violence at the hands of his abusive father, and instead the opening credits play over scenes showing Wilson’s early success with the Beach Boys, with hits such as ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘Fun Fun Fun’. On first listen they are happy pop songs, emblematic of the sun-drenched Californian teenage lifestyle, but on dissection you can hear how innovative the layered harmonies and complex arrangements are.
Wilson found the life of the touring chart-topping musician difficult and he suggested to the band that he stay at home and focus on songwriting. The other members reluctantly agreed so while they were on tour Wilson began working on what would become Pet Sounds. The seasoned session musicians who worked with him on the original recordings were blown away by his inventiveness, his vision and boundless enthusiasm, but the rest of the Beach Boys, especially Mike Love, hated the record, thinking the lyrics were too dark. The fans agreed and it was the worst selling record of the Beach Boys’ career at that point, but the critics lauded it and for once they were right; Pet Sounds is now recognised as one of the landmark albums of the sixties and a work of genius.
Wilson became addicted to drugs and alcohol, perhaps in an attempt to self-medicate the mental illness which has dogged him throughout his life. He has suffered many nervous breakdowns and been diagnosed as suffering from both bi-polar and schizoaffective disorders, with auditory hallucinations. These episodes are brilliantly depicted in the film, in particular a dinner party scene where a stressed and fragile Brian is overwhelmed by the ambient sounds of cutlery knocking against plates.
Love & Mercy alternates between scenes of the young Brian at the height of his success and the older Brian, who was controlled, manipulated and over-medicated by Doctor Eugene Landy, a immoral psychologist who was bleeding Brian dry financially. Melinda Ledbetter, Brian’s second wife (played by Elizabeth Banks) meets Brian during this period and is mainly responsible for freeing him from Landy’s malign influence. (Landy was later discredited and had his license revoked based on his treatment of Wilson.) I read Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story which was co-authored by Landy and has since been disowned by Wilson. It certainly paints Landy in a favourable light and given the subsequent revelations is not to be taken seriously.
Dano and Cusack are both wonderful in the dual lead roles, and their versions of Wilson are sympathetic and moving. But the stand-out for me was Elizabeth Banks whose portrayal of Ledbetter is understated and empathetic. It’s a less showy role but she gives it huge depth.
Being asked to contribute the soundtrack for a biopic about a musical genius must have been both exciting and vaguely terrifying, but Atticus Ross hits it out of the park. He has worked with Trent Reznor on The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo on electronic influenced scores. In Love & Mercy he creates a more traditional orchestral score, but with cacophonous, distorted and disorientating elements which serve to convey Brian’s mental state.
People often talk about the fine line between genius and madness, which is an idea I don’t believe in as it glamorises mental illness and it also disenfranchises those who suffer but who are not creatively gifted. However I have often wondered why mental illness has persisted throughout human history despite natural selection. I think perhaps one of the many reasons is that some people who are psychiatrically atypical (perhaps as a result of autism, schizoprenia, bi-polar, or depression) can create beauty in our world, they can elevate ordinary life into something magical. If anyone is an example of this it is Brian Wilson and this film is a masterful tribute to one of the greatest popular composers of the last century.