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Jonathan James Romley (Dublin, Ireland)

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1900 / Novecento [1976] [DVD]
1900 / Novecento [1976] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Robert De Niro

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bertolucci's flawed epic... certainly worth experiencing., 29 Feb. 2008
1900 was director Bernardo Bertolucci follow up to the Italian masterpiece, The Conformist, and his legendary work, The Last Tango in Paris. Like Michael Cimmino's similarly flawed-epic, Heaven's Gate, it shows what happens when an acclaimed director gets control of the ultimate cast and an unlimited budget, and is allowed to go over-schedule on a sprawling personal project, without the interference of the studios. As a result of this, 1900 is a deeply flawed film, really falling apart somewhere towards the end and to some extent, slipping away from Bertolucci's grasp as a result of the sheer epic scale of the project. The story begins in the year 1901, on the day of Verdi's death. As the people mourn, the backdrop to the story finds two boys born on the same day - the first boy, Alfredo, is the son of a wealthy landowner... the second boy, Olmo, is the bastard son of a farm labourer - as the story progresses, the two boys become central to the ultimate story, developing a strong friendship that will play-out against a backdrop of war, socialism and the rise of the Fascist party in early twentieth-century Italy. Bertolucci confuses matters further by having the film begin during the 1945 Liberation Day; using this pivotal moment as a framing device to launch into his epic back-story, only to emerge at the end of the story some many years in the future.

The story isn't quite as confusing as it sounds, with the director anchoring the story throughout to the characters of Olmo and Alfredo. In the early scenes, we see the two boys living an idyllic "Huckleberry Finn" style existence, catching frogs, play-fighting, testing each other's bravery with a series of dares... whilst, all the while, succumbing to the lifestyle of their respective families. This will eventually, to some extent, tear the two friends apart, as the hard working Olmo sides with the communists whilst Alfredo, torn by loyalty and greed, allows the fascists to operate on his land. As you would expect from an epic, the film introduced lots of background characters, with the film taking in three generations of Italian history over the course of its vast, five-hour running time. Some of the history of the film is glossed over... with Bertolucci falling into an uneasy habit of switching between oblique, allegorical metaphors (the use of different animals to act as a symbol for each type of character, for example; the socialists as cats, head butted to death by the fascists who are portrayed as pigs, bloated, self-righteous beasts there to be gutted by the labourers) and almost bludgeoning political ideologies (the penultimate speech from Olmo is delivered literally to camera). Also, we're never really sure of whom we're supposed to be rooting for; clearly, Bertolucci wants us to side with the socialists, but they come across as spineless cowards who can only afflict revenge on the fascists and the landowners once they have been stripped of all their power. For the most part, the socialists wander around singing songs to each other, never once trying to convince us of their suffering, whilst Bertolucci seemingly thinks that if he makes them dirty enough, or ugly enough, we'll feel sympathy for them regardless. It doesn't quite work.

However, despite these flaws, the film is still (as many other critics have also noted) a monumental achievement. This is an epic in the classic sense, recalling films like The Godfather and Visconti's The Leopard (Burt Lancaster plays a role here that is very similar to the role of Don Fabrizio Salina, which he played in that particular film). It's also very similar to that other flawed Italian filmmaker's epic, Once Upon A Time in America, with both films employing the use of a flash-back/framing devise, as well as a thematic scope that covers a similar period in history (albeit, this is about Italy rather than America). Like Leone's film, 1900 is vast and sprawling, though anchored to two characters (who are best friends since childhood) and their personal relationships (...whilst, superficially, they both feature Robert DeNiro). Like Once Upon A Time... 1900 is a very brutal and confrontational film, with many violent sequences and scenes of outrageous sexuality. The version that I have (the one shown on Film Four) is as close to uncut as can be shown in this county (only one shot, the one in which the young Alfredo plays with himself in order to achieve an erection, was digitally darkened around the genital areas so that nothing could be seen); with Bertolucci taking almost every scene and characterisation completely over the top. This method is most apparent with the character of Attila, the lead-fascist in the film, who, in one of his earliest appearances, ties a kitten to the wall and then head buts it. This prefigures a later scene, in which Bertolucci implies that Attila has raped a small boy, only for Attila to then pick the child up by the ankles and swing him around the room until his skull shatters against a post.

Some of the performances in the film are very strong, particularly DeNiro as Alfredo, Gérard Depardieu as Olmo, Dominique Sanda as Ada, Sterling Hayden as Olmo's grandpa Leo, Burt Lancaster as the patriarch Berlinghieri and Donald Sutherland as the snarling "villain" Attila, whilst that gorgeous cinematography from Vittorio Storaro is just exquisite (...the camera always moving, blocking, tracking, revealing, swooping around the characters with the most gorgeous colours imaginable). It's easily one of the most beautiful films ever made, adding to the epic nature of the story and the feelings evoked through Ennio Morricone's great score. 1900 might not be the greatest film ever made, but I feel that it is an important film, both in terms of style and ambition. It's a definite flawed masterpiece, with a great cast and a talented director at the height of their creative prowess. As both an outrageous, overblown melodrama and as a political allegory/treatise on loyalty and friendship, it's worth looking out for and is an interesting relic to one of the most-important eras of cinema history.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 17, 2012 9:39 AM GMT

A Song Of Stone
A Song Of Stone
by Iain Banks
Edition: Paperback

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An inconsistent and largely infuriating experiment in language..., 29 Feb. 2008
This review is from: A Song Of Stone (Paperback)
The setting is an ancient castle segregated and cast adrift amidst a hostile, post-apocalyptic landscape. Our characters represent the final pocket of humanity from disparate backgrounds and viewpoints, with the author choosing to look specifically at the emotional power play between three incongruent archetypes whilst, simultaneously, wrapping their plight in themes such as trust, loyalty, honesty, possession and betrayal. The use of language is exasperating throughout, with the writer using arcane plotting, evocative descriptions, poetic soliloquies, prose-like dialog, jaw-dropping phrasing and more than enough alliteration, to further sketch out the world in which these characters co-exist (whilst also developing the sense of emotional connection and understanding between our three leads). So, with all these noble and intelligently creative characteristics on display, why does The Song of Stone remain one of Banks' most infuriating and inconsistent works?

For me, the book never really got anywhere. That would be it's biggest problem. I admire Banks' desire to push the limits of what modern literature can achiever through its use of language, sentence construction and dialog that could easily be classed as poetry, but really, the narrative of this book is so slight that the whole thing could probably be dubbed style over substance. There were, of course, flashes of genius, with the book alluding to the strange relationship between the couple that own the castle and the band of marauding mercenaries that take it over... as well as some interesting ideas about loyalty and possession, in this case, both the possession of objects and the personal possession of other people. There were also a number of scenes in which Banks was able to get the drama to a dizzying degree, specifically during the huge militant banquet and our protagonist's expulsion from his own home, not least, the drive to the woods and that whole subjective final chapter. But for me, this was too little too late. The whole book seems like a slow trek up a steep hill, with Banks playing far too many games for his own enjoyment and allowing plot elements that could have metamorphosed into staggering twists and turns (ala, The Crow Road, Complicity, etc) instead become mere clichés.

There were times when the whole thing reminded me a little of Banks' better, earlier work, The Bridge, with the notion of Ian Banks venturing into the territory of Iain M. Banks, with elements of social metaphor and allusions to existentialism allowed to permeate his usual constructs of quirky characters, shocking violence and all manner of past immorality. But this too fell flat, and the whole thing took turns into routine thriller territory and even worse, melodrama. It's a crying shame really, with the use of language as previously mentioned featuring amongst the very best examples of showboating literary spectacle of the last decade. It's just a pity that the plot, characters and sub-textual emotional resonance didn't really come together until the latter half of the book. There's still enough going for it to warrant a three star rating, but this is hardly a book to clamour over. Perhaps it would make good reading fodder for those all to familiar rainy days, when there's really nothing better to do.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 6, 2009 9:51 AM BST

The Outsider (Penguin Modern Classics)
The Outsider (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Albert Camus
Edition: Paperback

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First masterpiece from Albert Camus; L'Étranger (1942), 29 Feb. 2008
The Outsider was first published in Paris in 1942 and would cement it's author's reputation as one of the most intelligent and imaginative writers of the 20th century. It also remains one the best introductions to the realm of existentialist literature - or that so-called sub-genre they dubbed the philosophical novella - in that it combines certain theoretical ideas that were established in the early writings of Jean-Paul Sartre (particularly his novel Nausea and his short story collection, Le Mur) with a more defined sense of narrative, character and attitude towards politics and morality. Because of this, the story is simplified to the point of non-existence, as J.G. Ballard notes in his personal blurb (surmised on the back of the Penguin Classics publication) "it's the story of a beach murder... blood and sand" which, despite giving away a central plot point of the book, destroys none of the tension or emotional connection that we feel for the central character.

It is Camus' genius in pruning the story down to a bare minimum of scenes and supporting characters that gives the book any social or philosophical weight; with the ramifications of the act and the underlining attitude of our protagonist Meursault defining the crux of the book's theoretical debate over notions of narrative unfolding, etc. The slightness of actual narrative (and I use this term lightly, since many great books have needed very little in the way of story to entrance a reader) and the fact that at a mere 118 pages it remains one of the shortest works of fiction, will no doubt alienate many potential readers; which to me, is a great shame. Camus knows that it is the simplicity of the story and the matter-of-fact way in which he uses his prose to detail this bland everyday existence of our "hero" that will elevate his plight come the closing chapters of the book. In this respect, it reminded me very much of Kieslowski's masterpiece A Short Film About Killing, in that we are introduced to this character who, although warm and to some degree capable of love and tenderness (particularly here, if we look at his various relationships throughout the book with Raymond, Marie, even old Salamano, et al), is withdrawn from the world around him and lost within the trivialities of existence; the sun, the beach and the waves.

Camus argument, paraphrased in his after word as the mere notion that "...any man that doesn't cry at his mother's funeral is liable to be condemned to death" acts as a blistering indictment of the judicial system of 1940's Algiers (in the same way that Kieslowski's afore-mentioned film lamented early-80's Poland), as well as the notion of atheism (lets not forget that Sartre described existentialism as "the attempt to draw all the consequences from a position of consistent atheism"), mortality and the importance of fact in the eyes of those that bend the truth to suit their own view of life, seen through the eyes of a character who is so removed from the world around him that he is incapable of bending the truth, even if the truth will only incriminate him further within the misdeeds of the past. Camus book remains as intelligent and relevant today as it did back in 1942, and offers the reader an enticing theoretical parable, relating to the notions of the social and historical unjust.

The writing throughout is atmospheric, and captures the plight of our narrator Meursault, with whom me share a combination of sadness, empathy, pity and remorse. As Ballard points out in his brief summation, this is one of the century's classic novels, which, in my opinion, deserves to be experienced by as many people as possible.

Bridge Over Troubled Water
Bridge Over Troubled Water
Price: £3.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down., 29 Feb. 2008
The magic of this record is apparent right from the outset, with the title track - which for me, remains one of the most inspirational song ever recorded - establishing the mood, tone and scope of the album completely. Everything about it just works perfectly - from the arrangement, to the production, to the vocals - everything! It opens with the aforementioned title track, which is probably one of those songs that you'd really love to hate in order to stand out from the crowd, but it's simply impossible. It's just one of those songs that you can put on after a rough day and drift away completely into that great crystal-like piano that opens the song and leads us effortlessly into Simon's great lyrics and Garfunkle's truly enveloping voice.

The lyrics should get special mention, for it is here that Simon became a truly great songwriter, easily in the same league as Lennon and McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. The opening verse just sets it all up; "when you're weary, feeling small...when tears are in your eyes, I'll dry them all". Sure, it's nowhere near as lyrically complex as something like Eleanor Rigby or Stuck Inside of Mobile, but the way in which Simon tells a story and yet communicates to the listener on a one to one, highly intimate basis is very special. Though it's the second part of the second verse that always touches me the most, "I'll take your part when darkness comes, and pain is all around... like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down", particularly though Garfunkle's sensitive, compassionate delivery and the undercutting bombast of Hal Blain and that gorgeous pain/keyboard fill from Larry Knechtel.

It's a shame that I've dedicated the majority of this comment to the title track, because really, every song here is great. It's one of those albums that just flows nicely from beginning to end, carried along by great song-writing, performance, arrangement and emotional intensity. Who cares if they were at each others throats the whole time? Songs like Cecilia, with it's world-beat inspirations, joyous handclaps and brisk pace, or the driving Keep the Customer Satisfied, which is probably the closes Paul and Art ever got to 'rock', act a nice high before the lulled, gentle pacing of So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright, possibly the only ballad dedicated to an architect, with that standout moment when Garfunkle coos "...all of the nights we harmonised till daaaawn!". Next track, The Boxer, is even better, featuring one of Simon's best ever guitar melodies and a great little narrative about the rise and fall of a low-life pugilist, which brings to mind a film like Raging Bull or that wrestling idea from the Coen's Barton Fink; particularly the lyric "in the clearing stands a boxer and a fighter by his trade, and he carries the reminder, of every glove that laid him down or cut him till he cried out, in his anger and his shame, 'I am leaving, I am leaving' but the fighter still remains". It is easily one of the classic American songs of the era, elevated by bold orchestral flourishes that emerge as the song progresses, and the famous "lie-la-lie..." backing vocals from Art. It is also a great primer to a later track on the album, The Only Living Boy in New York, which I'm not entirely sure as to what it's about, but it's beautiful in it's melancholy all the same ("...half of the time we're gone but we don't know where, and we don't know where").

Meanwhile, the final track, Song for the Asking, really brings the whole melancholic, alienated theme of the album full circle, seeming like a cry for help from the very same character being addressed by the narrator of the title track. As others have said, the song is short and sweet and is all the better for it, offering us a final beacon of hope and undiluted honesty, with the coda "this is my tune for the taking, take it don't turn away, I've been waiting all my life... thinking it over I've been sad, thinking it over I'd be more than glad to change my ways, for the asking... ask me and I will play". Bridge Over Troubled Water really is one of the classic albums. Though it may not reveal it's self to you immediately, persevere, and take solace in the fact that Paul and Art's gentle musings will always be there... if you need a friend, sailing right behind, like a bridge over troubled water, it will ease your mind.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 24, 2010 3:56 PM BST

Red Roses For Me
Red Roses For Me
Price: £6.82

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent re-issue of the Pogue's storming debut., 29 Feb. 2008
This review is from: Red Roses For Me (Audio CD)
Like most people, my initial introduction to the Pogues came via that perennial yuletide favourite, Fairytale of New York - a great song that would act as the creative yard-stick to which all future Pogue-related releases (and Christmas singles) would be measured, due in part to the excellent production of Steve Lilywhite - which managed to perfectly capture the instrumental prowess of the band at their most polished, whilst simultaneously making the evocative gutter-poetry of Shane MacGowan relevant to even the most bourgeoisie of middle-class musical aficionados. As great as that song is (and the album from which it came), The Pogues were always better when producing work that captured the same wild, rambling and often shambolic spirit and feeling that would make their legendary early live performances just so legendary to begin with.

So, here we have a record that delivers just that, with the sound of Red Roses for Me illustrating the band at the height of their energetic prowess, as they move seamlessly from a collection of traditional Irish folk standards (bolstered by that punk rock energy and that trademark Pogues sound) to wild and raucous MacGowan penned originals, which really helps set the scene for their follow up album, Rum Sodomy & the Lash. For me, it's probably a better album than the more celebrated (Elvis Costello produced) follow up, with the loud sound and wild, freewheeling performances here, managing to capture the true spirit of The Pogues in all their untamed glory.

Opening track Transmetropolitan is great stuff, perfectly introducing the sound of The Pogues with that clambering instrumentation and dissonant chorus of screaming voices, with Shane intoning that great sing-along chorus "going transmetropolitan -- yip-eye-ay!" as if his life depends on it. It is one of many MacGowan penned tracks on this album that points to the style of song writing and performance found on the next two albums, with other MacGowan tracks like The Boys From the County Hell, Sea Shanty and Streams of Whiskey being the obvious precursors to songs like Sally Mac Lennane, The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn and The Old Main Drag. Naturally, MacGowan's songs are the kind we would expect of him - lyrical, foul-mouthed, energetic, poetic drinking songs - however, the traditional pieces offer a further scope to the creative talent of the band, with instrumental pieces like Dingle Regatta and McGowan's own The Battle of Brisbane (which would seem to have been an influence on Phillip Chevron's great track A Pistol For Paddy Garcia on the next album) showing the Pogues to be capable of crafting beautiful and melodic pieces of music, far removed from the drinking and the screaming.

On songs like Sea Shanty, Down in the Ground Where the Dead Men Go and The Dark Streets of London we can seem him reaching the kind of peak that would lead to classics like Sick Bed..., A Pair of Brown Eyes, If I Should Fall From Grace with God, The Broad Majestic Shannon and London You're a Lady, whilst his vocal delivery, particularly on tracks like The Auld Triangle, Greenland Whale Fisheries and the beautiful ballad Kitty, we see him reaching the kind of vocal evocation of Nick Cave in some of his more lethargic and haunting moments.

The Auld Triangle is particularly impressive, if only for the fact that the Pogues could take a song that has been performed so many times by so many different people and still manage to put an original spin on it. I love the minimal instrumentation, with the song growing from a few pipe arrangements and a dash of accordion, with MacGowan really brining the most out of the song and evoking a real sense of loss and the emotional isolation felt by the song's incarcerated protagonist. Even better (in my opinion) is Kitty, which again employs pipes and accordion, but is also backed by acoustic guitar, banjo and the odd stab of tambourine and percussion. The melody here is lovely and shows that the band could do understated and restrained pieces of music alongside the more raucous drinking songs. MacGowan's eager and emotive performance here is ably backed by the rest of the band, with each member giving it their absolute all, whether it be Spider Stacy's screaming backing vocals and rhythmic beer trey head-banging, Andrew Ranken's great range of percussion, Jem Finer's plaintive banjo, James Fearnley's understated lead-guitar and Cait O'Riordan's cadenced bass. I think the production by Stan Brennan is great here, bringing out the rough and ready energy of the band in a way that Costello would attempt on their more celebrated follow-up. However, for me, this album is much more impressive, with the band really trying to prove their musical and lyrical dexterity with these songs... injecting them with a vibrancy and a sense of raw emotion that is perhaps lacking in the more polished renditions of other folk artistes.

The collection of additional tracks found on this release (all The Pogues albums were recently re-mastered and re-issued with a number of bonus tracks) add an extra level to an album that was already (for me at least) an integral purchase. If you already know and love The Pogues from songs like Fairy Tale of New York and A Pair of Brown Eyes, or, if you've picked up albums like Rum Sodomy and the Lash and If I Should Fall From Grace, then this album is a must have. This is the Pogues as they should sound, away from all the polish of later records, and closer to that early live sound that many of us have never experienced. Red Roses for Me is probably my favourite Pogues' album, and is one that grows better with age.

George Best Plus
George Best Plus
Price: £10.82

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Classic "jingly-jangly" indie-pop album, from 1987..., 29 Feb. 2008
This review is from: George Best Plus (Audio CD)
This was very much the Wedding Present in phase one of their career, fusing a C-86 style of indie-pop with references to the Undertones, the less-abrasive side of the Fall and, of course, the world of The Smiths. Later, they would tackle a more dissonant sound with albums like Bizarro and their masterpiece Seamonsters, which took the template of the great guitar-pop found here, but combined it with a more rigid and distorted sound that seemed to point more towards U.S. rock bands like Pavement, Sonic Youth and The Pixies.

George Best remains a great debut album and is probably the best place to start, allowing the listener to discover that classic 'Wedding Present' sound before the more adventurous music that would follow. The sound here is very mid-80's style indie, with the guitars chiming away in various layers of harmony, backed by a rhythmic percussion and a warm, fuzzy bass. The songs are topped off by singer/songwriter David Gedge's dry, northern vocals, which give a further degree of honesty to those lovesick, confessional lyrics. The album opens with the perfect guitar pop of Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft, which has a frantic acoustic melody and inter-weaving boy/girl vocals from Gedge and Amelia Fletcher, which really set this apart as a great track to open with. The lyrics are fantastic and give us a fair example of the conversational style that Gedge would perfect throughout subsequent Wedding Present albums, and also with his later band Cinerama, with the opening lyric "oh why do you catch my eye and then turn away" fitting in nicely alongside the musical integration of the acoustic and electric guitar. The song is one of the highlights, not just of this album, but also of Gedge's career as a whole, and gives us a definite idea of what to expect, stylistically, from the rest of the LP.

Throughout the album Gedge and his band mates (here comprising of Peter Solowka on lead guitar, Keith Gregory on bass, Shaun Charman on drums and backing vocals, with additional drums on the bonus tracks by Simon Smith) setting lovesick confessionals to that classic 80's indie style in a way that's not too dissimilar to Britpop acts like Blur and Pulp (with fellow Yorkshire man Jarvis possessing a similar lyrical style to Gedge and a similar fondness for simple chord structures and sweet melodies) making this album more of a precursor to His N' Hers or Different Class (though without the electro-pop references) than a mere sequel to The Queen Is Dead.

The real standouts of the original 14-track album (now expanded to 23-tracks through the inclusion of the Nobodies Twisting Your Arm and Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now? EP's), besides that great opening, include the storming one and a half-minutes of Getting Nowhere Fast (predating the punk-rock thrash of Bizarro), the wilting confessional Give My Love To Kevin, Anyone Can Make A Mistake, the caustic What Did Your Last Servant Die OF and the great indie anthem Shatner (a song that employs a pop melody to mask lyrics that perhaps reference domestic abuse). The whole album works wonderfully though, capturing a mood and creating an atmosphere that the band manages to keep up from start to finish. Listening to the album now over a decade after it was first released almost immediately transports you back to a stuffy bedroom circa 87... the kind with football cards pinned to the headboard, a page-three cut-out tacked to the wardrobe and a set of bad sixth-form poetry scattered across the desk (a vision of late 80's adolescence from someone who was three at the time... so what do I know?).

Gedge's lyrics have the ability to create that kind of world in the mind of those listening, with his songs here presenting an almost Mike Leigh-style depiction of English youth and misguided lust. He's probably one of the most underrated songwriters this country has produced, especially in terms of so-called indie music (I'd take songs like Give My Love To Kevin, My Favourite Dress, All About Eve and Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now? over anything by the likes of The Libertines, Arctic Monkeys and Oasis). Although the band would go on to produce better, more mature albums, like Bizarro and the excellent and abrasive Seamonsters (and Gedge would go on to write some even more astounding and intelligent pop songs with his later project Cinerama), George Best retains a certain charm and individuality. If you compare the songs here to the kind of indie-music being produced today, there's very little that sounds quite as quaint and affecting as the music here; although that conversational style of vocal and lyric is certainly still being used by the likes of Lily Allen, Kate Nash, Jamie T. and the rest of the BRIT school hopefuls.

George Best is a great debut album from an underrated band and an undervalued songwriter; perfectly capturing that sense of lovesick youth with a sound that is wondrous (if you love jangly 80's style guitar pop you'll love this!!). The overall amount of tracks might be a bit daunting, but it certainly offers values for money, and acts as something of a collector's piece for those who perhaps had the original vinyl/tape/CD edition and are looking for an upgrade. In short, a nice introduction to one of the great cult-acts of the 1980s.

Offered by Fulfillment Express
Price: £12.79

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Pastoral, pleasantly tuneful cycle through the seasons with XTC, 29 Feb. 2008
This review is from: Skylarking (Audio CD)
Ever wondered what Astral Weeks would have sounded like if performed by Elvis Costello and produced by George Martin? If the answer is yes, then look no further than this album. Skylarking is, without question, the apex of XTC's mid-80's studio period, in which the band traded jerky-new-wave rhythms and bitter lyrics for more delicate, multi-layered arrangements and err... bitter lyrics! They also temporarily relocated to New York to work with producer Todd Rungren who persuaded the band that the songs they'd written whilst still back home in Swindon would make one hell of a concept album and thus, set about re-structuring the set-list to form the backbone of a loose narrative in which a young couple spend a summer's day languishing in a field making plans for their life ahead... or something along those lines.

As with other albums of this ilk, such as The Kink's Village Green Preservation Society, The Divine Comedy's Promenade and, more recently, The Streets' A Grand Don't Come for Free, the actual concept is hardly coherent, jumping from location to location almost at will whilst looking at certain themes that deviate from the story at hand. None of this is particularly important though, as the fourteen songs that made up the original album stand as some of the very best compositions in the whole of the XTC canon. However, it's not just the songwriting that is at its peak here, but the album on the whole that is wonderfully performed and produced, with the range of instrumentation creating a real atmosphere that compliments the subject matter perfectly. As they had done with earlier albums like Mummer and The Big Express, the songs manage to capture a sense of pastoral tranquillity, whilst also pushing the boundaries of what the band could do on a purely creative level.

As a result of this, Skylarking sounds worlds away from stuff like Drums & Wires and Black Sea, sounding like The Beatles probably would if they'd still been making albums in the mid-80's. Don't believe me? Take a listen to the first two tracks and marvel at how the Andy Partridge composition Summer's Cauldron moves so effortlessly and invisibly into the Colin Moulding piece Grass; with gentle instrumental flourishes and evocative lyrics merging with constant sound samples of twittering birds, buzzing insects and a gentle caressing breeze, all moving gracefully from speaker to speaker as the two songs progress. As album introductions go, it's up there with the greatest and shows the two songwriters, creatively, at their very best. On the whole, the credits for the album are split fairly evenly, with Andy contributing the most but Colin delivering my personal favourites. Andy gives us classics like Ballet for a Rainy Day, 1000 Umbrellas, Earn Enough for Us, Another Satellite and the jazzy The Man Who Sailed Around his Soul, which are all definite highlights, but Colin's quartet of songs, Grass, The Meeting Place, Dying and Sacrificial Bonfire go beyond everything else, developing into full-blown and sublime pop symphonies.

Each song has a strong sense of melody and atmosphere that can be appreciated as a single track or instead, combined with the rest of the album to further the band's idiosyncratic concept (which also takes in ideas of evolution and the life cycle from birth to death). Because of all this conceptual and instrumental experimentation, Skylarking can be a difficult album at times and definitely takes a few listens to sink in; with many listeners new to XTC claiming that the production is cluttered and heavy-handed and that the lyrics seemed forced and self-indulgent. Now, I'll agree that certain elements of Rungren's production is somewhat bold and in your face, but I think it suits the overall mood of the record perfectly. The best songs are the ones that really push those Beatles connections to their fullest, with layered and varied instrumentation being swamped in sound samples; whilst simultaneously acting as the melodious and intermittently catchy backbone to an album that, when really looked at as a cohesive whole, seems almost crushingly bleak.

Because of this, Skylarking is certainly not the best place to start if you are new to the music of XTC; and if that is the case, then I suggest you fist subject yourself to great albums like Black Sea, English Settlement and perhaps even that great 60's pastiche/experimental record 25 o'clock (released by XTC under the pseudonym The Dukes of Stratosphere) before you even attempt a listening to this. Skylarking does however remain a great album from a great band - then at the height of their creative success - and should definitely be a required purchase for XTC devotees and admires of forward thinking, highly experimental pop.

Laughing Stock
Laughing Stock
Price: £6.17

13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cascading sounds mixed with wondrously desolate imagery..., 29 Feb. 2008
This review is from: Laughing Stock (Audio CD)
By this point in time, Mark Hollis had completely abandoned any notion of pop success or the idea of traditional musical composition, choosing instead to create lengthy improvisational pieces that used certain elements or recognisable rock sounds juxtaposed with folk, jazz and even classical instrumental arrangements. Compare this album with any record that has appeared in its wake, from bands like Radiohead, Sigur Rós, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Dirty Three, Mogwai, Fugazi and so on, and you'll find a record that breaks all the preconceived notions of what a rock band could and should achieve.

Laughing Stock was recorded in Wessex Studios between September 1990 and April 1991, a lengthy recording process in which Hollis & Talk Talk's producer Tim Friese-Greene would sketch out minimal recordings based around the guitar and piano, with Hollis mumbling his evocative tone-poems over the top. As the months went on, session musicians came in and worked on the songs with the band (at this stage, still comprising of drummer Lee Harris), which would further add to the album's free-falling, improvisational feel. Like the previous album, the masterpiece Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock begins with subtle sound samples, in this case, what sounds like a train moving slowly along the tracks. Is there a significance to this? Perhaps. There is a lot going on in Hollis' lyrics, which are often as vague and minimal as the music in question, though like Beckett, and certain poets of Beat-era, he still manages to convey the most evocative images within the collective mind of the listener. The lyrics also work well when coupled with the musical arrangements; as Hollis stretches the meaning of the words, so too does Friese-Greene, stretching the sound of the notes and the whole thing creating a trance-like feeling, with songs merging in and out of one another in a way that is almost conceptual.

It's a cliché to dub the sound 'alien', but there is really no other way to surmise the sounds, both musical or vocal, that we find on this record. Even the song titles, Myrrhman, Taphead, Runeii, seem to suggest some advanced state of transcendence, as if Hollis and the band were living in another world (and to an extent, they were), as well as giving us a slight idea as to what these extended and hypnotic compositions are all about. As with Spirit of Eden, the general themes seem to be religion, redemption and loss; with Hollis' apparently suffering a break-down and subsequent epiphany in which the words came to him in a dream. It makes sense. This is the kind of album that will mean different things to different people, with everyone having their own interpretation of both the music and the fractured lyrics, which perhaps explains why Laughing Stock is often referred to as both 'the most miserable album ever recorded' and the 'most uplifting'. For me, it's pretty clear that Hollis was in a much darker place with this record, as some of the lyrics (not least the bleak, desolate arrangements) will no doubt attest.

The opening verse says it all, "place my chair at the backroom door / help me up I can't wait no more / blessed love, the love I've seen / stair by idle stair"; with Hollis' voice resonating in a way that has absolutely nothing in common with the man who sang It's my Life half a decade earlier. And if you think that introduction is as despairing as thing get here, then you obviously haven't heard next track Ascension Day, in which Hollis opines "bet I'll be damned, gets harder to sense the sail, farewell, mother dumb and devout to, reckon luck sees us the same, weighted my hand, kill the bed, I'll burn on judgement day"... as the guitars ring out alongside various woodwind instruments to create the only song on the album that could accurately be referred to as 'rock'. The next four songs continue the trance like feel, seeming at times like one long composition, as the whole thing veers wildly from the snatches of dark, oblique poetry of my personal favourite After the Flood ("shake my head / turn my face to the floor / dead to respect to respect to be born / lest we forget who lay"), to the fragments of hope found in the closing song Runeii, which has a more acoustic sound that almost prefigures Mark Hollis' excellent solo album from the end of the last decade.

As with that particular album, as well as Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock has retained it's position as one of the most exasperating works of record production of the last twenty years. Some people rate it lower than the preceding Spirit of Eden, but I think that's largely because "Spirit" came first, therefore, it feels like a more important stylistic departure. Laughing Stock may take a few more listens to fully sink in, with the desolate and minimal approach of many of the songs perhaps sounding too relaxed or despondent, but give it time. This is one of those records that reveals itself through repeated late night listening sessions in which our minds are more open to the flowing, ethereal soundscapes that the band so effortlessly create. This is an album to treasure, the pinnacle of Talk Talk's artistic resurgence, and for me, one of the greatest records of all time.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Ethereal chamber-pop with hints of darker ambience, 29 Feb. 2008
This review is from: Victorialand (Audio CD)
Victorialand is an album that still manages to sound absolutely alien - even when analysed within the context of the Cocteau's career - with it's mixture of ethereal chamber-pop and a style of music that seems both medieval and futuristic in equal measures; building upon the sound and style of previous albums like Head Over Heels and Treasure, whilst simultaneously pushing things forwards into previously unexplored musical territories. The overall sound of the album here is much more lulled and minimal than on any of their previous records, with the departure of regular bassist Simon Raymonde leading to a collaboration with musician Richard Thomas and a greater reliance on more exotic instrumental arrangements, for example, the lengthy bursts of saxophone on opening track Lazy Calm, and the intoxicating use of tablas during the beautifully-titled, Feet-like Fins.

Often this album is referred to as the band's "acoustic-album", which is a little miss leading, as the music here hardly brings to mind MTV's Unplugged... however, I suppose the tag is justifiable to an extent, with Victorialand certainly sounding less rock-like than previous albums. Instead, the music seems to reflect the artwork (and vice-versa... often the case with the Cocteau's)... that muddy melange of colours and textures, moods and emotions, the vague shapes that seem to make sense the more you analyse them, and so on. It also alludes to that region of Antarctica (so eloquently described by other commentators), with the music having a vast, cold and ethereal feel to it, suggesting space and emotional landscape, rather than the obvious moods and emotions we would normally associate with pop.

The titles of the songs are also a clear indication to the style of music found within, with songs like Fluffy Tufts, Oomingmak and Little Spacey suggesting a beautiful and strange sense of nonsense, which is reflected in Elizabeth Fraser's gorgeous vocal work, which here stretches beyond the normal boundaries of what the human voice should be capable of, and shows a definite influence on performers like Dolores O'Riordan, Alison Goldfrapp and Björk; who can't help but seem inferior in comparison!? Her delivery of words and use of phrasing, which turns the lyrics into babbled cascading gibberish has always been one of the major draws to the Cocteau's sound, with further musical influences seen on later albums like Loveless by My Bloody Valentine (there creating that similar, intoxicating style of alien-pop so prevalent on Cocteau's albums like Treasure, Heaven or Las Vegas and this) and on the first four albums by Icelandic band Sigur Ros.

Songs Of Love: LIVE
Songs Of Love: LIVE
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Price: £21.95

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5.0 out of 5 stars AMC's front man in heartbreaking live form, 28 Feb. 2008
This review is from: Songs Of Love: LIVE (Audio CD)
Early American Music Club had always been bleak... with singer-songwriter Mark Eitzel drawing upon depression, personal heartache and a long-standing struggle with alcoholism to ensure that the music created by AMC had a greater sense of emotional depth and gritty realism than any of their 80s alt/rock peers (REM, The Replacements, etc). For me, their best work was always the pared down stuff, with some of their records, particularly later ones like Mercury & San Francisco suffering from over production (although a pre-emptive acoustic version of What Godzilla Said to God... on this collection proves it to be as lovely as anything from their best albums, California and Everclear). Eitzel is one of those songwriters who's words resonate stronger and deeper when stripped of the superficiality of intricate instrumental flourishes or smooth production, which is what sets this album apart from the rest of the Eitzel/AMC back-catalogue and makes it such a special purchase.

The official story goes that the band had been booked to perform at London's Borderline, but for some reason the rest of the group couldn't make it, leaving Eitzel to perform the whole set alone with a couple of acoustic guitars (borrowed from Sean O'Hagan, Nick Haeffner and Harvey Williams!). The results are spellbinding. Eitzel was never a performer too afraid to bare his emotions and his soul on stage and here he is absolutely captivating. Some will no doubt balk at the odd fluffed line or messy solo, as Eitzel fights back the tears to pine (and in some cases, scream) his lyrics over the top of some of the subtlest & most beautiful acoustic melodies ever recorded... ably exemplified by that beautiful bit of opening transcendent reflection, Firefly. The opening lyric, "come on beautiful, we'll go sit on the front lawn, and watch the fireflies as the sun goes down" taps into that sense of small town (American) melancholy and nostalgia for relationships past, a notion that will continue throughout the album's further joys... Western Sky, Last Harbour, Kathleen, Jenny and so on.

Eitzel is able to elicit more pain and emotion through the combination of words and simple guitar playing than most folk-artistes (or even fellow rock stars), with his lyrics capturing that feeling of late night loneliness and reflection, seen most clearly in my favourite song on the album, Western Sky. The allusions to Nick Drake (stated by Eitzel himself, with the influence of the aching Northern Sky) are apt, with Eitzel also standing as one of the most unappreciated and unsung songwriters of his generation who deserves to gain greater respect and admiration in later years... whilst the song it's self occupies the same sense of desperate longing and reflective heartbreak as Drake's, with Eitzel seemingly consoling his heartbroken lover/friend/self ("I wont see you no more, oh who am I to reign that high, the world's just a shadow of what went before, the word gives off none of it's own light") before bringing the song to a close with the refrain, "please be happy baby, and please don't cry, even though the parade, the charade has passed us by, you can still see it shining, shining in the western sky..." and a tearful apology (for what? baring his soul?).

Other songs follow in the same shambolic, honest and heartbreaking style, with many songs dealing specifically with Eitzel's history of loss and alcoholism, with Gary's Song, Take Courage and the a-cappella rendition of Room Above the Club both simultaneously celebrating and condemning those who drink to escape the pain. This same idea is covered on another favourite of mine, Outside This Bar, in which Eitzel spits out the words in desperation ("you know there ain't nothing good outside that door, so won't you tell me, won't you tell me what you're leaving here for?"). The set is captivating throughout, with the power of Eitzel's voice and the lingering effect of the songs making it clear for those of us too young to attend, just how important and mesmerising this live performance really is. Whether it be the echoing twang of Eitzel's guitar plucking, the painful cries welling beneath the voice and the occasional cheers and distant requests from the fans, this is a live album that both captures the mood of the performance as well as creating a separate, nocturnal mood for the listener.

Other aural delights like Jenny and Kathleen (which surmises the impotent pain of unrequited love like no other song before - or since - with the lyric "your love Kathleen was for someone that I swear I could have been") show a return to the lovelorn subject matter of Firefly and Western Sky and, although the set is marred slightly by the up-tempt number Crabwalk (one of AMC's weakest tracks?) the album as a whole works wonderfully in creating a real mood of beautiful reflection for the listener to wallow in. The set climaxes with Nothing Can Bring Me Down, which is the aforementioned "demo" of What Godzilla Said... which leaves us with that elating refrain "what could come around, what could make a difference to me now... what could come around, what could bring me down". Eitzel's Songs of Love Live is, without question, one of the great live albums, and illustrates Eitzel's power as both a songwriter and a performer... it should be of interest to anyone who's ever found themselves alone at 3am, not knowing what to do or who to turn to.

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