Reviews

British Sea Power: Man of Aran

There's strange symmetry to British Sea Power providing the soundtrack to a movie about the power of the sea, but the intended audience is the band's fans, not the filmmaker’s.


Man of Aran

Director: Robert J. Flaherty
Cast: Colman 'Tiger' King, Maggie Dirrane, Michael Dirrane
Distributor: Rough Trade
Rated: not rated
Year: 1934
US DVD release date: 2009-06-02

Robert J. Flaherty was more of a romantic poet than a documentary filmmaker. Today, he can be seen as a figure whose work doesn't fit into strict generic boundaries, an artist whose films functions more as personal vision than anthropology. In his lifetime he was both praised and criticized for this, and Man of Aran was a work of notable controversy.

This 1934 film is a partially fabricated docudrama in the tradition of his own acclaimed Nanook of the North. Its subject is the stubbornness and tenacity of humans who live according to ancient and primitive traditions, seemingly oblivious to the modern world. In his staged events with local citizens as his actors, Flaherty was supposedly preserving a vanishing way of life on film.

Aran is a rocky, barren, cliff-sided Irish island (actually several islands), and Flaherty corralled three unrelated locals to play a family of husband (Coleman "Tiger" King), wife (Maggie Dirrane) and boy (Mickleen Dillane). The boy is seen scrambling about and fishing from cliffs. The wife gathers and arranges seaweed to serve as a bed for growing potatoes on an island without soil. The husband is a fisherman (in reality he was primarily a blacksmith), and he's seen coming and going on small boats called currachs. He even mends a hole in one.

We see strong high waves crashing everywhere, in one sequence even washing over the woman who needs help from the others because she's been directed to go out there. The central action of this feature, which is only about 70-minutes long, involves the hunting of a huge shark. The narrative is constructed so that the boy spots the beast and then the men go out in a curragh to spear it, its huge tailfin thrashing around like a whale. The film doesn't tell you what can be found in an excellent documentary on the Home Vision DVD of Man of Aran, that this shark-hunting method was outdated by several decades and the islanders didn't do it anymore. What mattered to Flaherty was that they once had and this was the last chance to film it. Well, it's impressive.

People who wish to see the film must first be directed to that aforementioned DVD, because this CD and DVD project by British Sea Power is an offshoot of the film. The band apparently was approached with the idea of composing a new soundtrack for the movie, and that's what this is. The CD is the soundtrack, and the DVD is the film with the soundtrack or actually with five soundtracks: two options for the studio recording (in 2.0 stereo and 5.1 Surround), two more for the live recording of a performance at the Edinburgh Film Festival (again 2.0 stereo and 5.1 Surround), and then a much lower, stranger, minimalist score that's not so layered.

What the DVD doesn't have is the actual soundtrack, for after all this was a talkie, not a silent film, and it's unfortunate that this option isn't provided. Flaherty's film has dialogue and a score by John Greenwood based on Irish folk tunes. It's why you have to look elsewhere for the original, although the print used here is excellently sharp and shows off Flaherty's beautiful photography and his tight, sometimes frantically expressive editing. You can turn on subtitles to find out what the dialogue should be.

I only know this band from their debut album, which struck me as powerfully loud guitar-rock, and what we have here is also loud, especially if you crank it up as you probably should. It's floating, slowly-rolling music, approximating waves and wind with layers of electric string. The credits read as follows:

Yan (the band name of Scott Wilkinson) -- cello, bass, guitar.

Hamilton (Neil Wilkinson) -- guitar, vocals, bass, tape noises, sea.

Wood (Matthew Wood) -- drums.

Noble (Martin Noble) -- guitar, sea.

Abi Fry -- viola, xylophone, vocals, musical saw.

Phil the Wandering Horn -- keys, cornet, guitar.

The vocals refer to the ghostly, almost whispered tune ("Come Wander with Me") heard briefly as the third song on this otherwise instrumental wave of ecstatically crashing sound. Phil's cornet is heard piercingly near the end as the man comes home from the sea. The shark is signified by a distinctive low, watery gulping noise. The understated "bonus score" is credited to Yan alone, and I would have said it was sparely electronic in a manner reminiscent of Brian Eno. Well, I guess I did say it.

A word about that song "Come Wander with Me". It was written by Jeff Alexander as a faux-folk tune for an episode of The Twilight Zone, and has had a curious afterlife in the last several years, showing up in various places. An entry in IMDB explains that it's been heard in the film The Brown Bunny and at least one commercial, among other places, and showed up on a compilation album curated by Air. British Sea Power have now retro-fitted the song for a modern re-imagining of a project where the song might have been heard if it had existed at the time, which it didn't. Talk about twilight zones.

The notes say the movie is "at once heroic, stunning, camp, ridiculous. It's everything a rock band should be … Man of Aran is a dream, allowing you to imagine how things might be. As guitarist Martin Noble observes: 'We made this soundtrack because we liked the romantic notion of people living on the edge of existence. It's something I'd like to think I could do, but never will.' "

What an odd project this is, to replace an old movie's soundtrack with a new one. I admit there's a strange symmetry in a band called British Sea Power handling a movie all about the power of the sea, but clearly the intended audience here is the band's fans, for this is marketed as a CD and will be shelved with their others. Those people will take a look at the DVD and find an experience like a feature-length music video, and perhaps then they will be encouraged to seek out the proper presentation and even Flaherty's other films. But what if you're already a Flaherty fan? You'll probably seek this out for curiosity value and, depending on your musical taste, may well enjoy the majestic sound as an adjunct to the majestic pictures, but I've already said that film buffs shouldn't look to this as their first experience of the film.

Such a thing has "gimmick" written all over it and there have been others in the new century--Yo La Tengo's music for the undersea nature documentaries of Jean Painlevé (sold through the band's website but now also available on a Criterion disc of his films), Superchunk's score to the silent Japanese film A Page of Madness (available through their site). Those latter two examples premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival. Guitarist Bill Frisell was commissioned to compose scores for Buster Keaton films in New York, and some of those are being released on DVD this year.

It's a way of attracting hip young sell-out crowds to old movies. It works at least provisionally for the night of the performance. I am reminding of Giorgio Moroder's ‘80s rescoring of Metropolis. Perhaps we can look forward to bolder moves: The White Stripes do Breakfast at Tiffany's or Pet Shop Boys rescoring It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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