Monday, April 25, 2005

Ben Folds: "Songs for Silverman"

I instantly like Ben's new album... and that's got me worried. The albums I truly love generally take some time to grow on me. I didn't get Ben Folds Five's The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner for weeks, and Rufus' Want Two seemed to me incredibly hard to listen to when I first got it. These are now two of my favourite albums - they're near-perfect.

So when the first track on Songs For Silverman, 'Bastard', left me slightly deflated, I was optimistic. I obviously had a winner on my hands. But, much to my disappointment, it quickly got much better. In fact, the second track, 'You To Thank' is nothing less than brilliant; it has classically Foldsian lyrics about diving into marriage too early (just a tad auto-biographical then), and a middle-8 to rival any Ben has written before.

From there, the album goes downhill, filled as it it with immediately likable songs. How dare he.

'Gracie' is a beautiful song about Ben's daughter - if she doesn't appreciate it already, she soon will. Half lullabye, half 60s girl group pop perfection, this track has the prettiest melody Ben has written in a long time, and can a father really be any more complimentary than to say "You're not a baby, Gracie, you're my friend" ? True, this is qualified with "You'll be a lady soon, but until then you gotta do what I say", but all in all this is the perfect antidote to the Wainwright family issues flying round right now.

'Landed' and 'Give Judy My Notice' are obvious single tracks - the latter of which first appeared on the Speed Graphic ep and stood out a mile. In its first incarnation it was a simple piano-and-voice ballad - a gorgeous one - but here it has been given the country treatment. That sounds awful, and it almost is, but luckily, 'almost' is the operative word, because this is actually one of the best songs on the album. This improvement to an already excellent song shows how Ben's new band, with Jared Reynolds on bass and Lindsay Jamieson on drums, have a great part to play in his future work. This being said, Ben's own piano work on Songs For Silverman is something that hits you straight away - 'Landed', for example, is a standard song made infinitely better by the intricate piano that runs through it.

The only complaint I have about this album is that the songs are stylistically a little same-y. 'Rockin' the Suburbs' is criticised for being shiny and over-produced, but it has a variety (which may come down to something as prosaic as the use of a wider range of instruments) which is perhaps lacking here.

But then again, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Overall this is a strong, lyric-driven album that has it's fair share of 'future classics', and which, despite my opening gambit, does, I feel, have room to grow on me yet.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The blogger community

Well, it seems it does exist, just like the Guardian told me. Lisa Rullsenberg has added me to her blogroll, and what an honour that is. In return, her blog is at the head of my new 'Favourite Places', as a blog which deals with Rufus and Casanova deserves lots of recognition. What a warm fuzzy feeling I have.
Thank you.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Rufus Wainwright, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, 13/04/05

"This next song," says Wainwright, furrowing his brows in an attempt to keep a straight face, "is a hit". The dead pan expression quickly turns into a little giggle and trademark flick of the hair. The song in question, 'The One You Love' is certainly the most radio-friendly track on Want Two, and it did get a few plays on radio, but Rufus isn't huge; not just yet anyhow, and if I'm representative of his following, the fans don't want him to get huge. This genius songwriter, singer, and general entertainer is too good to be shared. If this gig proved anything, however, it was that you don't have to be on CDUK to be a real star. Because that's undoubtedly what he is - he had the audience of sensitive indie-types eating out of hands.

Let's start with what's really important - the music. Rufus is quite simply a stunning songwriter. He knows when to be grandiose, when to be understated, where to pitch songs that lie in the many shades of grey between the two. It is to his absolute credit that the quieter and more reflective songs are just as involving as the Broadway glamour of '14th Street', for example. Indeed, many of the highlights for me personally came when Wainwright was left on stage with only his piano for company - 'The Art Teacher' is a heartbreakingly simple song about childhood loves which had the audience transfixed, and the track which deals with his relationship with his father, 'Dinner At Eight' is deeply moving. Of course, the big numbers play equally well - 'I Don't Know What It Is' and 'Beautiful Child' (about a "happy apocolypse") evoke whoops and cheers normally reserved for Earl's Court. The set list may not have been to everyone's taste, packed as it was with tracks from his latest album Want Two, but for me it was perfect. It showcased what an utterly wonderful lp his newest is, while still fitting in pretty much every other song a fan could have wished to hear, from 'I Don't Know What It Is', to 'Across the Universe', to 'Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk' - played despite being resquested in a particularly drunken and obnoxious fashion earlier - "I've payed good money for this! Play Cigarettes and Alcohol!' The audience joins Rufus in a collective shake of the head.

If exquiste songwriting is not enough for you, however, Rufus has a fabulous stage presence. He's laugh-out-loud funny, cheekily telling the audience during the encore that his backing singers had spotted some cute guys in the front row. "And I agreed," he smiles, "There's some real Robin Hoods out there!" 500 female faces drop - "and some Maid Marians" he concedes with a sigh. I'm not suggesting all of the comments were off the cuff, but when your host is this entertaining, who cares? He's not afraid to be controversial, either, introducing 'Gay Messiah' by saying that he'd better play it quickly whilst there's no Pope...

The zenith of Rufus-as-showman, however comes in the encore. Rufus is jigging along nicely to 'Old Whore's Diet' when he reaches down and takes off his boots. Then his jacket. Then his shirt. Then his... is that a thong? Wait a minute, they're all doing it! With the crowd barely noticing the transformation, suddenly the whole band is in bras and fishnets, and pirate costumes. While Rufus slips into some shiny red stillettos, a red-wigged roadie bestows upon him fairy wings and a sash. He is Rufus Wainwright no more - he's Miss Nottingham! Of course! Now, anything goes, glo-sticks are waved and Miss Nottingham, apparantly having as a good a time as the audience screams "I'm gonna die!" when he realises that the sparklers he's holding are burning worryingly low... Then, the mania passes as quickly as it had arrived. Miss Nottingham takes off his wings, wraps a bathrobe around himself and sits down to play another good ten minutes.

"I aim to please" he says coyly, flicking back his floppy fringe one last time. He has certainly succeded.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Doctor Who. Yes, really.

My cultural blog, then, which I'm aiming to keep relatively reverent, if only because all this stuff might be useful to me in the future. Well, you never know. (Please look out for my gratuitous use of the word 'otherness'),

So, why am I starting with a TV programme?

Well because the re-starting of Doctor Who felt, bizarrely, important. Not bizarrely for Doctor Who fans, of course, who have been waiting for this event all their days, but for everyone else. I, for example, have never to my knowledge, seen more than a neat thirty Dalek-filled seconds of the series on "I *Heart* 1970s", but I've gotta say I was pretty excited. Scrap that, I was damn excited. True, this was mainly because of the casting of the Doctor himself - Christopher Ecclestone. Ecclestone! Playing the Doctor! The guy I've seen on stage! Playing the Doctor! I love TV. And I want everyone else to love TV too. So getting a "proper" actor to play this icon of Saturday night, family-oriented television made me very happy. People will take it seriously! Hoorah! Some people's enthusiasm may have been dampened by the casting of Billie Piper as the Doctor's assistant, but not mine. Billie! Playing the Doctor's assistant! The 'Because We Want To' girl! Playing the Doctor's Assistant! For some obscure and basically paradoxical reason, having Ecclestone as the Doctor made me yearn for a bit of dumbing down. This is TV dammit! Of course, what I really, secretly wanted, was a bit of magic. The Shakespearean actor and the tween idol defying the nay-sayers and coming up with a piece of fried gold.

And by George, they've done it! Of course I was inclined to like the series. I wanted to like the series. But you could say, then, that I was putting myself up to be disappointed, and I wasn't. Disappointed, I mean, and that equals success in my book.

I've read two things about the opening episode which annoyed me a little too much.

1) That the Doctor is "pointlessly Northern" (this from The People paper, I believe, who do not even deserve a link due to this comment). How can anything, anything be pointlessly northern? Since when has anything needed a reason to be Northern? A ridiculous comment. And this whole issue was negated by a single wonderful response to Rose's question - "If you're an alien, how come you sound like you're from the north?". The Doctor looks indignant - "Lots of planets have a north!"
2) That there is nothing more annoying than Christopher Ecclestone attempting to be impish (this from The Guardian who can have a link because the rest of the review was informed and interesting). I don't agree. He's wonderfully manic! Excited about danger! A proper hero! Grabbing Rose's hand and dragging her towards freedom and uncertainty with a grin on his face. This Doctor is not annoying, he is almost perfectly pitched, and this comes 90% from Ecclestone, though he always credits the writing (which is, admittedly, very witty). He switches from the sublime (eg a speech about being able to feel the earth rotate) to the ridiculous (eg negotiating a peace deal with a huge blob of living plastic) with ease and pulls off both with equal success.

As for Billie as Rose Tyler, I have few complaints and many things to praise. Lets do the complaints first. Well, complaint singular, in fact, as she doesn't do frightened particularly well. Luckily, Rose can generally look after herself, getting into the Doctor's good books in the first episode by saving his life. She does 'normal', however, very well. Once the Doctor has earnt her trust, she talks to him about 'fings' as if she's known him all her life. After coming back to earth after seeing its destruction hundreds of thousands of years later, this brief discussion (paraphrased, I'm afraid) takes place:
Doctor: So where d'you wanna go now?
Rose: . . . . can you smell chips? I really want some chips!
Doctor: Me too, as long as you're paying.
Rose: Some date you are!
It's little moments like this where Piper excels - she makes Rose undeniably human and as such highlights the Doctor's otherness. (10 points!)

I'm loving this series, and will miss Christopher Ecclestone when he leaves after just 13 episodes. But it's a hugely heartwarming show which proves that family T.V. can have weight and importance and good helping of silliness.