Monday, 29 October 2007

Arcade Fire - Newcastle Metro Arena

Canada's finest contemporary export confront commercial bugbears on sold out arena tour

So, Arcade Fire got massive, and a reputation for being rather grumpily disaffected by commercial success. It was with thoughts of their early secretive gatherings in London churches and frontman Win Butler’s tantrums on the Jonathan Ross show earlier this year that I entered the aircraft hangar that is Newcastle Metro Arena. Imagining the venue rammed with multitudes of post-gender pubescents squawking over their latest badly-dressed NME band of preference, I silently prayed that Arcade Fire and audience alike would instead be imparting some of that communal musical warmth that the band specialises in; that same respectably glorious symphonic mayhem that catapulted Arcade Fire from astronomical yet underpromoted independent label success with ‘Funeral’ in 2005, to mainstream art-rock phenomenon with ‘Neon Bible’ in 2007.

The warehouse was replete with edgy expectancy and a pleasingly diverse demographic (everyone from weird indie-geek girl to her leather jacket-sporting granddad) when Arcade Fire – ten of them – crept onto the instrument infested stage to the televised hysteria of a screeching black evangelist, a rather apt pre-emption of the mood on the floor. Openers ‘No Cars Go’ and ‘Keep the Car Running’ were flawlessly executed; anticipation in the crowd turned to outright joy, the kind Christmas day brought when Santa existed. All eyes were on the towering stature of Butler, all 6’5’’ of him, centre stage, his Canadian troubadours gathered about and his wife, Regine Chassagne, prancing about in a lime green silk dress, arms outstretched and tambourine rattling.

Band members interchanged instruments with alarming frequency as they slipped into slow-tempo reverie mid-set, including an early EP fronted by Chassagne, ‘Sleeping in a Submarine’, and the encompassing ethereality of ‘In the Backseat’. Butler then introduced a cover of the Smiths’ ‘Still Ill’ as ‘a song that made me want to play music’. It seemed particularly relevant in the aftermath of the singer’s recent successive bouts of illness that resulted in the cancellation of Arcade Fire’s European tour last spring.

The passive awe of the crowd was entirely dispelled as the end of the set heralded a rousing host of first album favourites including ‘Neighbourhood no.3 (Power Out)’, ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ and the delightfully predictable encore, ‘Wake Up’, that had the standing throngs clutching at each others’ sweaty shoulders in a wordless chorus of noisy adulation.

The best part was that Arcade Fire didn’t look disillusioned by success in the slightest – to the contrary there was an overwhelming sense of reciprocated energy about the whole set. Butler propelled himself into the audience on several occasions, seemingly thriving on the staggering turn out of fans and their messily enthusiastic appreciation of the music. There was no pretence of the elitism, musical snobbery or anti-commercialism that currently dominates Arcade Fire commentary. This was ‘just a bunch of musicians from Montreal, Canada,’ as Butler put it, sharing their music with tens of thousands of fans in a sold-out arena tour, and loving it.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Book Review - Atonement by Ian McEwan

Britain's first man of fiction poses essential questions in his book that will be lost on cinemagoers this summer

You will undoubtedly have seen the film adaptation of this book splashed across billboards and bus stops around the city this summer. Released at the beginning of the month, Keira Knightley’s generic starlet pout has dominated advertising space. But those who fail to realise that this latest cinematic offering is in fact the finest achievement of one of Britain’s most prolific contemporary writers are missing a literary treat.

'Atonement' revolves around ‘Briony’s crime’: the rape of a young girl by a family friend as perceived through the eyes of the young Briony Tallis. As the sole witness, Briony’s willingness to act upon her conviction about what she saw shapes the destinies of many of McEwan’s characters and leaves her with a guilty weight of responsibility for which she spends the rest of her life atoning. The ‘crime’ takes place in the oppressive summer heat of 1935 at the summer house of the Tallises, a well-to-do upper middle class family of which Briony is the youngest offspring. A thirteen year old playwright obsessed with making the transition to adulthood, Briony is often the reader’s eyes as she bosses her reluctant subjects, a family of children taking refuge from their parents’ divorce, into acting out her latest theatrical offering.

Meanwhile, Celia, Briony’s elder sister (and the victim of Knightley’s drama school interpretation in the film), has returned to the family home after graduating from Cambridge. Listless and unsure of where her future lies, Celia’s sudden confident womanhood attracts the attention of Robbie Turner, son of the housekeeper, who the Tallises funded through a successful academic career. Their affair, witnessed by Briony, develops into a life long love story made near impossible after the fateful night of ‘Briony’s crime’.

When Robbie joins the army in the second of the three parts of the novel, 'Atonement' degenerates into a horrifyingly graphic depiction of the Second World War and hurls the characters far from the comfort of that hot interwar summer. McEwan’s powerful evocation of wartime horror are so poetically gruesome in their realism that they will render you speechless – testament to the extent of his achievement here.

The story concludes in latter day London with a twist in the plot that crashes towards the reader and casts doubt over all of McEwan’s carefully projected plot in the rest of the novel. Here McEwan addresses some important questions: does life imitate art? Can writers create their own truths? 'Atonement' is a focused study of both of these questions disguised within a blockbuster of a fictional tale, the action-packed page-turning qualities of which have obviously not been lost on the money-hungry film industry, though the intricacies of McEwan's quest for truth doubtless have.

Book Review - The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath

Pioneering stuff from America's suicide sweetheart

Ever since Silvia Plath lovingly locked her young children in a sealed bedroom and committed suicide in the gas oven just a wall away from where they slept, her life has become a story of overblown obsession for some, and scadalised intrigue for many.

Next year the hype is sure to resurface yet again as Julia Stiles plans to direct and star in the Hollywood version of 'The Bell Jar', Plath’s only novel. (She was a poet of immeasurable talent and originality for most of her short life.) And so I beg you, reader of literary integrity, to form your opinion of this pioneering female writer not on the watered-down wastes of cinematic interpretation but from the words of the woman herself.

'The Bell Jar' comes closer than seemingly possible to invoking the utter blank blackness of a woman on the edge of insanity, consumed by the apparent meaninglessness of her existence. This sounds a rather depressing subject for a novel, but Plath’s pervasive dark wit provides moments of humour, whilst her mastery of the poetic stream-of-consciousness technique will have you tumbling through the pages just as the protagonist, Ester Greenwood, tumbled through society’s conformist hoops before her breakdown.

Esther is a sharp young talent, one of twelve lucky young girls whose writing has won them an internship in the office of a New York magazine, where they are spoiled with gifts and fashion shows and parties in abundance. What should have been every girl’s dream turns into Esther’s nightmare as she becomes increasingly unable to comprehend the frivolities that suffocate her at every turn, instead becoming increasingly disconnected from physical reality.

Early potential publishers rejected 'The Bell Jar' as being ‘disappointing, juvenile and overwrought’, a definite failure to understand Plath’s extraordinary propensity for realism – for these qualities are exactly the same as the ones that Esther grapples and gushes forth with throughout the novel. This is depression in all its terrifyingly destructive glory, pushed to its most dangerous frontiers, but made universally relevant through Plath’s exploration of the struggle for post-adolescent self-definition.

Singles Reviews

The low down on October's singles releases

The King Blues
Mr Music Man
The first single from this acoustic ska/reggae trio will already be familiar to regular listeners to Radio 1’s The Lock Up. Voted ‘Best Song Of 2006’ by listeners, Mr Music Man is a mellow infusion of infectious reggae beats and cheerfully simple acoustics that has enough laid back pop appeal to take the charts by storm. This is unaffected street punk repackaged for a rapacious commercial generation: the kids will love it.

The Departure
7 Year
The Departure return with 7 Years, an intensely bland and meaningless piece of emo-trash that does away with any hope that the Northampton band might have developed or encapsulated some of the angular post-punk hinted at in the first album ready for the release of their second next year. Expect nonsensical lyrics, wet killers-esque guitar hooks and plenty of noisy dissatisfaction.

Shocking Pinks
End of the World
Nick Harte (aka Shocking Pinks) finally sees his first full release on DFA in this enveloping bundle of melancholic wonderfulness. End of the World is a little symphony of heartbroken bliss that evolves from a wobbly drum break into a tension building, colourful combination of oversaturated acoustic guitars and swirling synths. It might not chart highly, but its encompassing fragile warmth is the perfect soundtrack to a rainy student Sunday.

The Thrills
The Midnight Choir
This is doubtless a highlight of The Thrills third album, released back in July: jangling melodies and a relentless banjo riff drive this second single forward over Deasy’s fragile vocals, heralding a return to the good old days of first album cheer. A clamourous little number, The Midnight Choir might not be ground breaking, but happily raucous choruses, a woeful edge of love lost, and a slice of those characteristic harmonica harmonies will keep toes-tapping and fans smiling.

The Envy Corps
Iowa four-piece The Envy Corps return to the UK with Rhinemaidens from their debut album, due for release in January 2008. The single is an uncomplicated friendly number comprising of a chattering guitar and a keyboard that seems to have time-warped straight out of the eighties. Reminiscent of early Primal Scream, this is an inoffensive piece of summery pop – nothing new, but eighties nostalgia has its charm.

Hundred Reasons
No Way Back
If you like your pop-punk to come the other side of the Atlantic you’ll love this. Power chords and heavy guitar riffs feature in abundance under jarring American vocals in No Way Back; which can be download free on iTunes from the 16th October. Lyrically juvenile and limitingly formulaic in their approach to songwriting, Hundred Reasons seem to be getting something right: the track comes from their fourth (fourth!) studio album, due out this month.

Richard Hawley
Richard Hawley of Pulp/Longpigs fame offers us another slice of his 1950s rock-a-billy pie with this upbeat little skiffly number that maps out the faultlines between loneliness and love. With so many bands churning out reinvented rubbish, this undeniably dated but perfectly put together dancehall throwback may just have you crooning along in your bedroom. If not, give it to your mum. She’ll love it.