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What Steve said...
...being a potpourri of musings, ideas, opinions and conjecture.

On Elsa & Fred, and why not all remakes need to be remade.

November 13th, 2014

In 1996, Suo Masayuki made a quite delightful film called Shall We Dance? It was a deftly-crafted comedy of Japanese manners, and while it may ostensibly have been about Yakusho Kōji’s sarariman character learning to dance, it was in reality an exploration of Japanese social mores. In 2004, an American remake starred Richard Gere; this time, there was no exploration of anything, and the film was simply about a middle-aged bloke dancing with a younger woman. It entirely lacked the charm and the depth of the Japanese original; it was dull, it was crap.

Elsa & Fred

Elsa & Fred

I mention this by way of trying to figure out what went wrong with Elsa & Fred. The film is a remake of a Spanish-language Argentinian original that was clearly successful enough to convince Michael Radford to make an English-language version. I’ve not seen the original, but I’ll assume that it had depth and wit and character, just as Suo’s original of Shall We Dance? did. Certainly, Radford has done as good a job as Peter Chelsom did with Shall We Dance? in sucking any charm, any life, out of his American remake.

The setup is simple enough — Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine, who both really ought to know much, much better, are the eponymous pair, living in adjacent flats in a building in New Orleans. He’s grumpy; she’s eccentric. Actually, she’s a pathological liar — or is she? (I offer this as an attempt to tease the story; after about half an hour you really won’t care.) They don’t hit it off the first time they meet. Guess how the story plays out — go on, just guess.

If you can’t figure out every single plot development, if you can’t predict how the story will work out almost from the beginning, then you’re simply not paying attention. MacLaine and Plummer do their best with woefully underwritten and under-developed characters; Plummer is the better of the two, finding more detail in the character of Fred than Radford and Anna Pavignano bothered to write into it, his accent wandering across the Atlantic almost at random and often straying into Patrick Stewart territory, while MacLaine simply dials the dotty up to eleven and delivers a performance with all the subtlety and complexity and sophistication of a Spinal Tap album. If you’re not going to invest any real time in a story, then fair enough. Not all films need a powerful story, if they have characters, or dialogue, or something, to underpin it — David Mamet’s almost perfect About Last Night is the standard reference text here. Elsa & Fred has none of this.

Much about this film is misjudged. The score is a series of aural signposts telling the audience what the director wants us to see: tinkling piano — look, she’s eccentric and crazy and zany; sweeping fiddles — look, they’re about to do something all madcap and fun and unexpectedly romantic. The supporting characters — Chris Noth is almost criminally wasted as Plummer’s son in law — are wheeled in and out to drive plot contrivances, not to do anything as interesting, or satisfying, as character development, something that is sorely lacking throughout the film.

There are moments when Radford appears to be trying to entertain and amuse — an attempt at a running gag at the expense of Fred’s late wife falls so flat as to be awkward. But for the most part Elsa & Fred simply plods along toward its inevitable, predictable ending. Along the way, however, it manages to exhibit some highly questionable racial politics. All the main characters are white — reasonable, I suppose, given that the majority of Americans are white. But there is a quite clear, quite obvious, caste system at work in the world of Elsa & Fred. Fred lives alone, so he has a home-help, Laverne. She’s black. She’s also a single mother whose daughter, mentioned in passing once, lives with Laverne’s sister in Pittsburgh. Armande, the super in Elsa and Fred’s building, is black. Shop assistants are black. When Elsa needs to go to hospital, the doctor is white, but just guess what race the nurse is — go on, just guess. It’s subtle at first, about the only thing in the film that is, but after a while there’s an inescapable apartheid at work. It felt wrong.

Racial issues notwithstanding, there’s nothing actively wrong with Elsa & Fred. It’s the kind of film you’d expect to see George Segal making with Glenda Jackson in the 1970s — indeed, Segal shows up as Fred’s best mate. But while the films that Segal was making forty years ago — A Touch of Class remains a high-water mark of the genre — were full of character and charm, Elsa & Fred falls flat. It wants to be a quirky, sharp, tart little comedy of manners. Instead, Radford has taken what was, we must assume, a very good Argentinian film, bled it dry of any actual human dimension, and instead delivered something quite devoid of joy, passion or any particular interest. Sad, really.

On Kasey Chambers, and how bluegrass should sound

October 5th, 2014

Bittersweet, the ninth studio album from Australian country singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers, is a quite confounding collection of songs. Set opener Oh Graceis a very polite, very well-mannered blend of country and traditional folk, but while it is an undeniably well-put-together song, it is, essentially, a tad forgettable. It’s a lovely song, to be sure, beautifully sung by a woman who has the confidence she’s entirely entitled to have in her voice. The accompanying banjo and brushed drums are discreetly and respectfully withdrawn, low down in the mix to give Chambers the chance to showcase her voice. It’s unremarkable but entirely pleasant. Much the same could be said of I Would Do, which sees Chambers channelling Michelle Shocked to decent effect, with a quite agreeable little bit of acoustic-guitar plodding but not really doing anything terribly remarkable.

kasey-chambers-bittersweetRemarkable comes in the form of songs like Wheelbarrow, an exceptional bluegrass stomp that opens with Chambers’ voice, backed by Ashleigh Dallas (Chambers’ banjo, fiddle and mandolin player)  and in full-on country twang, and builds into something rather magnificent, a powerful number that shows off what Kasey Chambers is capable of. Lyrically it’s harsh — “He gonna be rich until my money’s gone” — and the song’s mood is sharpened by the gloriously nasty and brittle guitar of Dan Kelly. It’s a very, very good song. Too Late To Save Me, similarly, rises high above the ordinary and reminds the listener why Kasey Chambers is as enduring a presence on the Australian music scene as she is. A slow-paced, slow-burning rock classic, Too Late To Save Me is, structurally, a very simple song, but what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in rawness and venom, Chambers’ voice showing edge and sharpness over an insistent, driving rhythm, a relentless mandolin line and some intricately beautiful percussion, Kelly’s guitar again adding spice to an already fierce number.

The rest of the album is a somewhat peculiar mix of moods, ideas and sounds. A Hell Of A Way To Go sounds, in so very many ways, like a Sundays out-take, while Heaven Or Hell, all minor-key mandolins and rousing chorus, is standard bluegrass-lite. It’s extremely agreeable, entirely pleasant music, but when you’ve heard what Chambers can do, it can be a tad disappointing to hear what she does do.

Bittersweet contains some rather questionable lyrical choices. Is God Real— “I don’t know if God is real/does he breathe or does he feel?” — with its jaunty rhythm and almost mocking tone, comes off almost as a comedy song; if it’s meant to be an honest exploration of Kasey Chambers’ faith and spirituality, it fails and simply comes across and glib. The God-bothering continues with Christmas Day, a retelling of the Christmas birth narratives that really offers very little by way of insight or profundity, and simply seems unnecessary. It’s an odd song, and its refrain — “There’s a new boy in town” — can’t help but bring to mind New Faces from the Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge, possibly not the reference Chambers was hoping for. But most peculiar is Stalker — “I would wear a locket round my neck with a drop of your blood, and I’d show all my friends if I had one.” It’s a catchy, fast-tempoed Celtic-flavoured whirl, and an agreeable enough song, but lyrically perhaps works less well than Chambers would have hoped.

Bittersweet is Kasey Chambers’ ninth album. It’s not likely to be the record that wins her new listeners — she’s well-enough established that she can record the album she wants to make. It’s a strong, polished record, a highly enjoyable listen. It’s also the first time she’s brought in an outside producer — Nick DiDia, who has previously worked with artists including Pearl Jam and Powderfinger, replaces Chambers’ brother Nash at the mixing desk, and the result is a clean, polished album. And, in tracks such as Too Late To Save Me, it has moments of true brilliance

On Benjamin Booker, and channeling the Black Crowes

September 22nd, 2014

There are moments, when one listens to the eponymous debut album from Benjamin Booker, a 25-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist from Virginia who is making something of a name for himself in the United States currently, which could make one thing that one might be listening to the birth of a mighty talent.

benjamin-booker-selftitled-debut-full-length_91-1The album opens with the rather excellent Violent Shiver, Booker’s debut single, which kicks off with a guitar-picking workout lifted directly from the Black Crowes before maturing into a straight-ahead classic-rock workout with just enough creativity and imagination in the composition to make it a memorable number in its own right. It’s followed by Always Waiting, which sounds for all the world like the bastard glam-rock child of Buddy Holly and Jimi Hendrix listening to a little too many George Formby records. It jangles around itself, not quite knowing where to go and threatening to turn into a La’s B-side, but manages to be an enjoyable track. Chippewa, another standout, is a shuffling boogie of a tune with an insistent drumline and a subtle but rather effective Hammond organ skirl driving it along.

And then Booker does something a little less well-advised. Slow Coming is, as the name suggests, the first slow number on the album, and, sadly, the first of several, and while I can easily imagine seas and oceans of lighters waving back and forth when he plays the song live, it falls a little flat coming out of my stereo. Again, Booker’s been playing his Black Crowes albums again, but this song points up one of the big problems with Benjamin Booker. He’s a very strong songwriter, and a skilled guitar player. He’s also — and here’s a crucial caveat — sometimes an excellent singer. His voice has strength and power, raw force and energy, and when he puts his head back and opens up his lungs, the raw and the rough and the unfiltered shine through. Even in mid-paced grooves like Happy Homes, he puts enough weight behind his voice to make it sound like a well-tuned instrument. But on the unpleasantly-named Spoon Out My Eyeballs, Booker’s attempts to croon only work when he starts to open up his pipes — the man can sing loud, but not soft. Loud, he’s good. Soft, he simply sounds like he’s getting over a bad cold and could really do with a good, hard cough. And that’s a shame, because songs like I Thought I Heard You Screaming are fine pieces of southern-inflected blues rock, let down by a singer who should have me wanting to sing along, but instead leaves me with an almost unbearable urge to clear my throat.

Production, by Andrija Tokic, who has previously worked with the Alabama Shakes, is a little messy — on tracks like Old Hearts, instruments get lost in each other, while Always Waiting sees unprocessed guitars shining through the mix but tending toward a blur as soon as they see a little overdrive, and too often the sound can only be described as muddy. The overall feel of the album, as a result, ends up a little, well, baggy. While bands have made a career out of loose-but-tight — you know, you just know, that Benjamin Booker, when he’s not listening to the Black Crowes, has the Faces on heavy rotation on his record player — there are moments on this album that simply feel a little loose, without quite enough tight to really convince the listener that the loose is a choice. Songs like Happy Homes make it work; on tracks like Have You Seen My Son, with its frantic and unfocused false ending, the feeling is less “this is a band who know what they’re doing” and more “Oh, man, that was a cool jam — d’ya think we can make an actual song out of it?” And, sadly, the answer’s no. When he’s good — and on, say, Violent Shiver, he’s very good — Benjamin Booker is a name to watch. Stephen King knew that he needed a good editor to keep him on track; Booker has the potential to be a powerful musical force, but he needs a producer who can tap into the energy he clearly has and who understands that the southern roots Booker clearly embraces need something more than just dialling the “swampy” button all the way to eleven.

Overall, this is a very promising debut album from a man who knows where he fits into the genres he so obviously enjoys. This is definitely a name to watch.

Click here to listen to Violent Shiver from Benjamin Booker: 

On Cameron Slater, scum and being a total nob.

August 17th, 2014

An Open Letter to Cameron Slater.

Dear Cameron,
I am in Christchurch.
I am not a ‘useless prick’. I have not asked to be ‘bailed out’ nor have my ‘scum friends’ in the eastern suburbs.
I lost my cafe in September, the quakes wrecked my shop that I had only owned for 8 months.
The quakes from then, have almost paralysed me! They are so scary and violent. Have you ever suffered a massive earth quake Cameron? Have you ever had to feel that fear and that for your children? Have you had to explain to your children why the world they know is shaking and why the house is coming down around them?
I opened my next shop in amongst the chaos I felt and the wreck of a house I lived in.
Then, the day after I opened my new shop, the Fe earthquake came. Lost everything, again.
Cameron, how is your house? How is your life? Are you scared? Do you have anxiety? Do you have a bag at the door with essentials and running shoes at the ready?
Dear Cameron,
For years, I was afraid. I still had to go to my cafe at 4.30am by myself. I was so afraid, I can barely explain the fear there of another earthquake what I would do. Oh my gosh, how afraid I was then, I wasn’t a ‘prick’, I was just a terrified girl, consumed by what might happen next! The slightest noise, the smallest bump gave me a pain in my heart and a headache.
Life is different now Cameron, we care about our neighbors here in Christchurch. We care about people who are doing it hard.
Do you? Would you if this was your town. It could be your town. What would you do?
Dear Cameron,
We are part of New Zealand. Did you forget that?
We are scared, frustrated, anxious and stressed. Weather its about insurance, eqc or just will be there be another quake?
Dear Cameron,
It worries us that the rest of NZ will forget what happened here, that’s hard to think about. We’re not asking for people to think of us always but just to day to day think about how we are because a lot of us aren’t ok. Would you be ok if this happened to you? How would you be if the rest of NZ seemingly didn’t care?
How would you cope? Would you still hit out viciously at people who are overwhelmed with eqc issues, insurance and people who are just right there afraid? Would you?
I hope Cameron, that when you are home, with your wife and kids, warm, secure and comfortable in your home that you might, just might give a thought to that moment when the world shakes the living shit out of you and then, you realize life is not that predictable. In fact right then it’s pretty much never going to be the same.
Saying we in Christchurch are hurt by your comments would be an understatement. Empathy is normal, but narcissism should be adressed.
I’m scared now. Really scared. Its hard to live in a town that shook like that. Its something that shouldn’t happen, its a weird thing that did, and every day I’m a little bit hesitant about what it will bring.
Are you?
Yours
Lyndelle Lyndelle McCabe Gibara

I don’t usually have guest bloggers write for my blog, but when I saw this heartfelt, impassioned response from the wonderful Lyndelle McCabe Gibara (no, no relation, but I’d be proud if she were), I knew I had to share it. 

On Hercules, and being neither good nor bad

July 24th, 2014

Possibly the worst sin a film can commit is to be boring. A good film, and especially a very good film, is a thing of joy. A film that draws you in, engages you, makes you think — that film is something to treasure and watch again and again and again. The opening sequence of Reservoir Dogs is as fine an example of tight, sharp scripting as I have seen, and bears endless re-watching; decades after its release, the jokes in Life of Brian have yet to pale. A bad film, even, can be a memorable experience — twenty-mumble years after I saw it, I still feel the rage I felt the night I saw the inexplicably popular Wings of Desire (no, I won’t link to it; it doesn’t deserve it), the bitter resentment I had for Wim Wenders, the man responsible for stealing the hours and hours and hours (no, it wasn’t really that long; it just felt like it) I spent watching this pretentious, self-indulgent mound of Teutonic bollocks.

Hercules

Hercules

Films should inspire some kind of response in their viewers. But Hercules doesn’t. It’s not a bad film — certainly not bad enough to be interesting, and that’s the root of the problem with it. The story, such as it is, seems to involve Hercules (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson; God knows who told the man he could act, but whoever it was, they were woefully mistaken) being hired by the unscrupulous Cotys, King of Thrace (John Hurt, who I didn’t realise needed a paycheque quite this badly), to fight Rheseus (Tobias Santelmann). Because Hercules, you see, in this re-imagining of the legend, isn’t the divine hero of Greek legend, but a man, albeit a quite creatively-muscled man; the film is based not on the fabled figure of legend, but on a graphic novel, Hercules: The Thracian Wars. It starts with a moderately entertaining bit of exposition, with a backstory explained by Iolaus (Reece Ritchie), the storyteller who accompanies Hercules and the mercenaries he leads. But it doesn’t really explain why Hercules is no longer the demigod of myth, and suddenly a slightly grubby mercenary, and that’s the direction the film now heads.

Accompanying Hercules are an inexplicably odd bunch. Amphiaraus (Ian McShane, who really should know better) is a seer of some sort; quite why he is travelling the Grecian countryside with a bunch of fighters remains unclear. Autolycus (Rufus Sewell, who appears to be having a decent amount of fun), Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, whose primary role, it would appear, is to look good in a leather bikini) and Tydeus (a quite forgettable Aksel Hennie) do the typically predictable job of taking a seemingly useless bunch of Thracian soldiers and turning them into an unstoppable fighting machine.

Fighting, inevitably, starts. There are a couple of set-piece fight sequences that are well-filmed, but, as is the problem with the entire film, they’re just a little dull. We know little of the Thracians, who they are or why they need the services of Hercules and his crew. We know even less of Rheseus and why he has it in for Thrace. As a result, it’s extremely difficult to engage with the story, and even harder to care about the battles. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that Hercules et al survive their skirmishes; the battle scenes, then, are simply set pieces for director Brett Ratner to have a bit of fun. It is, I accept, entirely possible that there was some fantastically lucid and articulate exposition to clarify these points; if there were, it would have been while I was wondering what I was having for tea when I got home, and allowing viewers’ thoughts to drift that badly is simply unacceptable in a film.

And so the film continues. It focuses, reasonably enough, on the central character of Hercules, but Dwayne Johnson simply isn’t enough of an actor to carry the role. Everyone else in the cast, it appeared, knew that this was a comedy — at the very least that’s how McShane and Sewell play it — but Johnson is stiff and ernest and almost entirely devoid of anything even resembling charisma, or charm, or warmth, throughout the entire film. He isn’t up to the task, and, presumably, was cast on the strength of his unfeasibly monstrous muscles, which get an airing in every scene. He’s not a pleasant man to look at, isn’t The Rock — muscly is all well and good, but please, keep your biceps in proportion to the rest of your body, and there’s nothing attractive about veins bulging out of limbs like subcutaneous lengths of randomly-knotted rope. Johnson would appear to be on his way to becoming the Arnold Schwarzenegger of his generation, but he lacks even Arnie’s screen presence.

As a result, you’re left staring at a very uninteresting film, and the mind will, when there’s nothing in the story, or the script, or the acting, to occupy it, start asking questions that maybe Ratner should have asked himself when he took on the project. Why isn’t the eponymous hero called Heracles? That was, after all, the mythological figure’s original Greek name, the film is set in Greece, not Rome, and much is made of the jealousy felt by Hera, wife of Heracles’ father Zeus. Is Hercules in fact divine, and do Centaurs actually exist? For that matter, is Cerberus real? Ratner seems unable to decide for himself, and so the film swings rather wildly from one viewpoint to another. Why, in a 3D film, are the backdrops to many of the city scenes so painted-backdrop flat?

The end of the film, which comes after a mercifully short 98 minutes, seems to be setting up a sequel; indeed, for much of its running time, Hercules felt like the pilot episode for a TV series — hesitant, uncertain, laying the groundwork for a longer story but not quite sufficiently sure of itself to hit its stride. As a result, this is an unsatisfying disappointment of a film. Characters are inadequately developed, actors are either utterly out of their depth (Johnson is so wooden that “The Oak” would make a better nickname) or either so camp (that would be McShane, who clearly has lost all self-respect and forgotten that he’s better than this) or so scenery-chewing (John Hurt is, well, John Hurt, and hence not entirely capable of making a bad film, but here he’s basically John Hurt as John Hurt as Cotys, snarling and sneering his way through every line) that they seem not to be taking the film they’re in particularly seriously. The story is half-arsed, weak and under-told.

So not a good film, then, not by any stretch. But also not even a bad film. Hercules is simply a film, an utterly unremarkable re-telling of a very remarkable story. And that’s very, very disappointing.

On class sizes, school funding, and why none of it matters

July 8th, 2014

Although Schadenfreude isn’t the most attractive of emotions, it is very, very good to see John Key catching some flak of late, remarks of his from 2005 coming to light and reminding us that Mr. Key is, or at least was nine years ago, a fan of small classes in schools. That, apparently, was among the reasons why he has chosen to send his children to private schools.

Now who would be responsible, do we think, for class sizes? That would be, one would imagine, the government — and, for better or worse, the government of New Zealand has been, for the last six of the nine years since Mr. Key shared with the world his views on class sizes, a National government, led by the very same Mr. Key himself. So we’ve got John Key the champion of small classes on the one hand, John Key the prime minister and head of government on the other. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that, given the absolute mandate Mr. Key clearly believes he has (Don’t believe me? Count the state-owned asset sales and then we’ll talk), he’d take the opportunity to do something about the size of classes in New Zealand’s schools. Like, for example, reducing it.

You’d think. But he’s not. Of course he hasn’t. Class sizes almost, in fact, increased under Mr. Key’s tenure as prime minister. This would be a good thing for anyone involved in education. Students — the very reason we have an education system in the first place, let us not forget — will not benefit from being in large classes. I’ve taught large and small groups, and I know the difference. When I’m teaching a smaller class, I can get to know every single child in the room personally, learn about them and their interests, explore their strengths and weaknesses, build a learning relationship with them and find creative ways to help them. But the larger the class grows, the more impossible this becomes. When I have thirty or more children sitting in front of me, then — no matter how hard I try — they’ll be little more than a list of names, ethnicities and test scores in my markbook; the larger the class, the harder it is for me to recognise individuals and their individual needs. Oh, I’ll do it, but it’ll take me a lot longer, and even once it’s happened, the amount of time I can spend on each individual student is inevitably diminished.

Perhaps Mr. Key saw the light. Perhaps he realised that even his party could manage to share the wealth around — a little National socialism, if you will — or perhaps he realised that this was not a vote-winner. Whatever the reason, he had Hekia Parata, less and less a minister of the crown and increasingly a human shield to protect the prime minister when an unpalatable policy needs pulling, announce that the proposed class-size increase was being taken off the table.

We still have, sadly, the highly misguided Investing in Educational Success programme, which is simply performance pay and favouritism dressed up as career opportunities. It will see hundreds of millions of dollars thrown at a very small number of teachers and principals to pay them either to do nothing new or to spend less time at their current job. Watching the ministers, prime and of education, chasing their tails has been somewhere between hilarious and agonising — we can’t find a penny more for teachers, but wait, yes we can, but we’ll pay a handful, picked essentially through favouritism, a large extra sum per year to teach less.

It’s pretty bloody obvious, then, that a National government is not fit to run education in this country, and, in particular, the current minister has little or no (personally I’ll go with “no,” but I’ll let you make your own mind up) idea of how to develop educational policy. Labour have something more of an idea, and it’s encouraging to see an understanding that increasing funding to low-decile schools to account for the fact that the “contributions” that are a de facto school fee in many of the higher-decile schools simply widen the achievement gap even further.

But in the end, none of it matters. Schools like Auckland Grammar — a school considered so desirable that parents will spend tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of dollars extra on their mortgages just to get their boys in — can afford all the equipment they want, but that’s not why their results are as good as they are. What matters is parents. It’s as simple as that. I see a child for an hour a day at most, and even when you add up the total time my colleagues and I, together, actually spend with any one student, you’ll see that it’s almost trivial compared to the time a child spends with his parents. And not simply on a day-to-day basis — parents are the continuous, ongoing, lasting strand that threads its way through a child’s life. And if a child’s parents value that child’s education, that child is so very much more likely to enjoy positive educational outcomes. Parents who don’t promote education, who don’t value school and learning, who don’t encourage their children to study and learn — these are the parents whose children will disengage at school, who will truant, who will drop out, and, worse, will, when they do attend, distract and disrupt and destroy and hold back their classmates’ learning. It’s the fact that parents are willing to invest huge sums in their children’s education that is behind high achievement at the highly-achieving schools, not simply funding (although the money never hurts…).

At a recent parents’ evening, I saw, in three hours, the parents of seven students. Seven, out of nearly fifty. Seven, about one in seven. Which means that among the nearly fifty students in the Year 11 classes I teach, only one in seven had parents who thought that coming to a parents’ evening and meeting their child’s teachers, discussing their child’s progress in school, finding out what they could do to support their child’s learning, was worth making the effort to come to school for half an hour. Or look at it from an altogether sadder and more worrying perspective — six out of seven parents didn’t think their child’s learning was important enough.

And while the message I get from this is very clear, the message my students — their children — hear is equally clear: school’s not that big a deal, kid. If a child’s parents aren’t sending a consistent and unequivocal message to the child that school is something important, something to be valued, something that can make a serious and profound change in a child’s life, then it really doesn’t matter what I say in class — that child is almost certainly going to fail.

I don’t blame some parents for not fronting up to parents’ evening. If I knew, or even if I were reasonably confident, that I’d hear mostly positive, encouraging things about my child, then I’d be willing to get myself down to school. But if I knew — and, let’s face it, there’s plenty of parents who do know — that teacher after teacher after teacher would be offering variations on a theme of “Oh, Mr Smith, you’re little Johnny’s dad? He’s a right little shit, isn’t he?” then I’d be a little less thrilled about the thought of showing up. And so the cycle continues.

We teachers can spend as long as we like planning the most engaging lessons, we can prepare the most exciting learning opportunities, we can keep up with the most up-to-date research, we can follow the very best of best practices. Ministers can double, halve or do whatever else they want with class sizes, they can invent all the new teacher titles they like, they can fling bucketful after bucketful of money at every school in the land. But it doesn’t matter. Until what children do in school is promoted at home, it’s all futile.

On Natalie Merchant, and not finding the joy

July 7th, 2014

Natalie Merchant’s self-titled sixth album, her first collection of original material since Motherland, released in 2001, is nice. It’s very nice.

But it’s hard to find a lot to be enthusiastic about. Merchant has, in the past, produced some quite deliciously beautiful music, music with subtle, understated, but unmistakable energy and emotion. But Natalie Merchant contains nothing — and I’ve tried, I’ve really tried, to find the standout track, the classic, the song that fires the spark of joy in my heart that I know Merchant is capable of sparking.

natalie-merchantThere are plenty of lovely songs on the album, though —don’t get me wrong. Acoustic whisperers like Seven Deadly Sins and Texas need to be played on a good pair of headphones, and should be listened to in a darkened room, with only candlelight to distract from the accordion and the brushed drums. Black Sheep comes close to excellence, a delicate torch song with swirling oboes and shimmering cymbals, but the saxophone that honks through the background of the song distracts from the moments when Merchant comes close to cutting loose and reminding of what her voice is capable of.

And what a voice Merchant has. It is an instrument in itself, a thing of, potentially, the greatest beauty and power. It’s also an instrument she keeps disappointingly muted. A tiny part of me is grateful — I’ve only just forgiven her for what she did to Misguided Angel on the Cowboy Junkies’Trinity Revisited album —but I also miss the sheer, unadulterated joy that she can bring to a song like Jealousy, from 1995’s debut solo album, Tiger Lily. Instead of hip-swaying joy and soaring passion, much of what’s on Natalie Merchant is simply polite.

There are flashes, there are glimpses —Go Down, Moses shows Merchant remembering what her voice is for, what it’s capable of. The song is a fairly simple piece, a gospel shuffle of drums with a little piano and plucked guitars, a sweet scream of Hammond organ, and it offers an ideal backdrop for Merchant to send her voice heavenward, and she does, briefly. Even when backing singer Corliss Stafford steps a little closer to the microphone, Merchant owns the song, and it’s a joy that’s sadly all too rare in this set.

It’s A-Coming is a little bit of a groove, minor-key electric guitars in the background, a hint of funk in the bassline and, again, that hint of Hammond. But it’s an inconsequential number, a throwaway piece, before what Merchant appears to consider the big number for the album.

Lulu is preceded by a ragtime-piano bit titled Lulu (Introduction); the song itself is a very 1980s-inflected slow-burn of a tribute to Louise Brooks. No, I’d not heard of her either — apparently she was famous, as much as anything, for helping to popularise the bob haircut much beloved of her 1920s contemporaries. It remains unclear why Merchant felt the need to eulogise her.

The album ends, not entirely surprisingly, with The End, a song that feels more overwrought than elegant. The string-quartet accompaniment feels overwhelming, overdone — a singer like Merchant needs space to move, she needs room within an arrangement to showcase the dynamics of her voice, and The End fails to give her the space she finds on songs like album opener Ladybird, whose strings accompany and support the sweetness and strength of her voice, but don’t get in the way of it. Even when Merchant is holding back — something you get the feeling she does a lot on this album —there is still a presence to her voice that should be allowed to cut through the music, not fight with it.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Natalie Merchant. It’s a highly polished, beautifully performed and exquisitely presented album by a mature, accomplished singer and songwriter who has found her own voice, even if she sometimes forgets what to do with it. But for all the beauty of the whispered, close-to-the-mic delicateness, I miss the joy.

Click here to listen to Go Down Moses from Natalie Merchant

On Hobby Lobby, and being Christian

July 1st, 2014

By all means complain about the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the United States that a corporation providing subsidised health insurance for some of its employees is entitled to restrict which drugs that insurance covers based on religious convictions. It is, of course, utterly absurd that a corporation can claim to have religious convictions such that it would be offended by the provision of birth control — especially since, as we’re now discovering, the same corporation invests in companies that produce precisely the drugs it doesn’t want to provide to the women who help generate its profits — but to focus on the absurdity of attributing human beliefs, convictions, opinions to a corporation is to utterly miss the point.

The point is not whether Hobby Lobby should or should not include certain pills in its health plans on religious grounds. Of course it should — it can do anything it damned well wants, because it’s paying. But that’s not the point. (more…)

On Paul Weller, and questionable compilations

June 22nd, 2014

It’s always going to be difficult reviewing a Paul Weller album. The Jam, Weller’s first band, contributed to the soundtrack of my teenage years, as did the Style Council, his second outfit. And since the latter’s demise in 1988, Weller has created a very special place for himself in the history of British music through the Britpop days of the 1990s. But More Modern Classics does him few favours.

The Jam were, among many other things, a rather angry band. In The Eton Rifles, or Going Underground, you hear passion, feeling in Weller’s voice. The Style Council, although many Weller fans will never forgive me for saying this, played jazz of astounding beauty. But Weller solo has been a very mixed bag — while an artist should have range, depth, variety, a consistent voice is not a bad thing, and a retrospective such as More Modern Classics shows into stark relief an inconsistency in Paul Weller’s output over the years.

2014paulweller_moremodernclassics_150414There are, to be sure, classics — Come On, Let’s Go from 2005’s As Is Now is one of the few tracks in this compilation to capture some of the old energy of The Jam, borrowing its chord progression quite clearly from Jam classic That’s Entertainment and its guitars from the Undertones’ That Dangerous Age, which first appeared on 2012’s Sonik Kicks, odd though it undeniably is, has a lot of shoop-shoop charm and a pleasing amount of the kind of quirkiness one would not always expect from Weller.  Wake Up The Nation, from the eponymous 2010 record, has some of the brittle edge and sharpness that one expects from Paul Weller — “Take your face out of Facebook and get off the phone,” is almost, but not quite, “Sup up your beer and collect your fags.”

But for all the barbed brittleness of a Push It Along or Flame Out! (You’re always taking a bit of a risk using an exclamation point in a song title, but Flame Out! just about justifies it), there’s a mis-step. Sweet Pea, My Sweet Pea, from the critically-acclaimed 2000 release Heliocentric, is simply a bad song — dreary, slow and disappointing. Studio 150, the 2004 collection of covers, provides us with Wishing On A Star, an ill-judged jazz-pop plodder with a by-the-numbers 1970s disco-pop backing.

Calling your new compilation More Modern Classics is something of an exercise in hubris — not only are the songs on this album classics, claims Paul Weller, but so are my previous efforts. And some — but by no means all — of the of the 21 tracks in this retrospective could reasonably be considered classics. By the time The Jam released Beat Surrender in 1982, Paul Weller had established himself as a major player on the British music scene. The Style Council brought his music to a wider audience, and his solo work cemented his place in the Britpop pantheon. His influence on acts from Oasis to Ocean Colour Scene — indeed, you’ll find Noel Gallagher and most of OCS on various tracks on this album — is undeniable. But, like any musical hero, he is at best a flawed genius, and for every classic on this record, there’s a filler. If you’re a Paul Weller fan, you’ll already own all of these songs. If you’re not yet, buy yourself a copy of Wild Wood, and then you’ll see what all the fuss was about.

Click here to listen to Wake Up The Nation from More Modern Classics