Sunday, January 31, 2010

Stirling Work

Mad Men is back. Hooray. We've covered this before, but it's still pitch perfect in almost every respect. The costumes, the scenery, the furniture, the politics, the mores.

In fact the only bit of the series that feels like a pastiche is the opening title sequence. The falling silhouettes are clearly meant to ape designers like Saul Bass (cf. his poster for Vertigo or titles for Anatomy of A Murder, for example), but without Bass's economy of line or instinct for metaphor. The music, however, is the real clunker here. It's like Bernard Herrmann being played by a B-list trip-hop band (possibly Sneaker Pimps), and as far as I'm concerned, it really jars with the show that follows it.

So, to redress the balance, how about some real Bernard Herrmann? Here's the Prelude from Psycho, played by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Mr. Herrmann himself.

Download Prelude by Bernard Herrmann mp3 (deleted Aug 2010)

True Brit

An interesting article (as usual) here by Simon Reynolds, positing the not unreasonable supposition that hip hop has lost its way as a musical force. This is a thought that may have crossed your mind had you been unfortunate enough to catch recent lukewarm efforts by Kanye West, P Diddy or Eminem. However, the article does make the unwarranted assumption that hip hop is an artform exclusive to, and exported solely from, the U.S.A. Not true, of course. France has a thriving hip hop subculture. As does Japan. As does Britain. And the British scene is in relatively rude health. Or, at least, in no less rude health than at any other time in its history.

This history is currently being explored in a fantastic exhibition that I saw recently at Manchester's Urbis. Entitled Home Grown: The Story of UK Hip Hop, it's a comprehensive look at the genre in the UK from its beginnings (the growing awareness of the American scene in the early eighties through films like Wild Style, the influence of figures like Malcolm McLaren and, in particular, the importance of Morgan Khan's Street Sounds Electro imprint), through its initial recordings by pioneers like Broken Glass Crew and Newtrament, the Music of Life and Gee Street labels, and The Ruthless Rap Assassins, through 90s labels like Melankolic and Bite It!, to the launch of Radio 1Xtra (featuring former underground artists like Skitz and Rodney P as DJs) and the success of artists like Mike Skinner and Roots Manuva. As its narrative unfolds in a more-or-less chronological order, props are given, rightly, to artists like Derek B, She Rockers, MC Duke, the Demon Boyz, Stereo MCs, Blade, Hijack, Monie Love, Lewis Parker, Overlord X, Ty... and, in particular, demonised figures such as Dave Pearce and Tim Westwood, who, for all their faults, were genuinely there from day one (you can see Westwood's 1983 columns for Blues & Soul on display, for example).

It's an exhaustive look at the subject, curated entirely be people who clearly know the subject inside out (which is always a bonus whenever you're putting on an exhibition at a museum), but who also have a great grasp of how to hold people's attention. As well as copious photos, flyers and posters, there are opportunities to look at videos and listen to actual hip hop at multiple points in the exhibition. The attention to detail on the part of the curators is terrific, too; after spending an hour or so perusing the artefacts on display, it was only as I was leaving that I looked closer at the labels describing the objects, and realised that they were cassette cases, with typed inlay cards. If you can get to Manchester before March and have even a cursory interest in the subject, a visit to Urbis is highly recommended. Especially as the venue is closing shortly thereafter to become the National Football Museum.

That British rap is enjoying its moment in the sun is due in no small part to the fantastic Big Dada label, home to Juice Aleem, Ty and the current Mercury Prize holder Speech Debelle (though the latter notoriously (reportedly) dumped the label that brought her her acclaim soon afterwards. In the music industry, this is known as "doing a Gary Clail"). The label's big seller, though, is, of course, Roots Manuva. A full breakthrough into the mainstream is surely imminent, as Mr. Manuva (né Rodney Smith) has been recording with indie try-hards The Maccabees. His last album, Slime & Reason, was slightly overlooked by critics, but I think it's just as strong as his previous efforts, especially the squelchy sound effects that he's nicked from label-mates Spank Rock. Check I'm A New Man from Slime & Reason below.

Lewis Parker features prominently in the exhibition, and may get more notice in a future planned blog post about his former label, Melankolic (no promises, mind). Until then, enjoy a cut from his 1998 album Masquerades & Silhouettes, below. The title alone should tip you off that gangstas and hoes will be conspicuous by their absence.

Finally for today, Manchester's own Ruthless Rap Assassins. They feature heavily in the Urbis exhibition, and rightly so. So does their producer, Greg Wilson, who mentored the group, having done the same some years previously for Broken Glass Street Crew. Their No Tale, No Twist track comes from their 1991 near-hit album Think, It Ain't Illegal Yet. Peace. We outta here.

Download No Tale, No Twist by Ruthless Rap Assassins (mp3) (deleted Aug 2010)

Download Shadows of Autumn by Lewis Parker (mp3) (deleted Aug 2010)

Download I'm A New Man by Roots Manuva (mp3) (deleted Aug 2010)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Art Brut

I occasionally like to drill my kids on their knowledge of pop history. It keeps 'em on their toes, I find.

This week, we were listening to the radio when the (wonderful) Keep The Customer Satisfied came on. The Simon and Garfunkel version, thankfully.

"Who's this?" I asked. The usual educated guesses ensued.

"Blondie?" pondered the nine-year old. It often is, but it wasn't on this occasion.

"Beach Boys?" asked the eleven-year old hopefully.

"No," replied I. "I'll give you a clue. It's one of grandpa's favourite groups." My dad has always liked Simon & Garfunkel. Bridge Over Troubled Water was one of the albums that soundtracked my youth, along with Tapestry and Mud Slide Slim.

The proverbial light bulb went on over the nine-year old's head. He struggled to remember his grandfather's favourites. He could remember. Nearly, anyway. I could tell. After a long pause, he formulated his guess. "Errrrrr......Artle & Funk?"

We fell about laughing.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Freudian Slip

A post-script to the previous post: as an anonymous contributor points out, I shamefully forgot the passing of Sir Clement Freud in 2009 (many thanks, and no, it wasn't deliberate).

As a mea culpa, here's a link to a fantastic Clement joke. It was originally posted on Rhodri Marsden's great blog. I hope he doesn't mind.