Monthly Archives: February 2014

…Prefab Sprout gives us the pop supreme.

paddy mcaloon

You all know the story. The pop group with the songs all the musicians love. The literate lyrics, the knowledge of pop history and esoterica, the songcraft of geniuses, the musicianship of masters all put together. Prefab Sprout has been hailed by critics as such a group all through their long career. From the beginning in 1982 the band has forged their own path through an ever changing musical landscape with the vision of leading man Paddy McAloon as their guiding light. Always more of critic favourites than commercial ones, the band has given rise to more appreciative text than actual chart success. Intelligent pop music is not by itself an argument for sales, not that this matters that much when we´re talking about pop music as an art form.

For me personally, the first albums went by pretty much unacknowledged. The only one I own on vinyl is “From Langley Park to Memphis”, with hit songs like “Cars and girls”. Music a little bit too smart for it´s own good was sometimes said of the band back in their most active days. However, an uncompromising philosophy kept their legacy alive through a number of wilderness years, effectively closed by their most recent release, “Crimson/Red”.

After a period of ill health; Menieres disease, bilateral cataract surgery and retinal detachment, Paddy McAloon strikes back in the way only he can with songs of unsurpassed quality and complexity. Melodies and musicianship of the highest degree and lyrics and singing to die for. Everything on the album is played and sung by himself which is by itself nothing less than extraordinary. Many of the songs has been decades in the making but still sound as contemporary as anything.

Starter “The best jewel thief in the world” shimmers like a diamond under sharp lights, with it´s harmonica juxtaposed with police sirens, dealing with the perceived impossibility of originality in view of more than a hundred years of songwriting. “List of impossible things” combines poetic sensibility with wonderful guitar playing and is in so many ways a rare treat. “Adolescence” chronicles an upbringing through a lens tinted with Shakespeare, complete with emotional singing and a sparse but beautiful guitar solo. “Grief built the Taj Mahal” offers subdued drama to the tune of elegant chord changes and Paddy´s soulful voice. Uptempo “Devil came a calling” flows evenly both melodically and lyrically and gives the record a valuable sense of lightness and spring in its step, as does the following song “Billy”. “The dreamer” returns to the realm of beautiful melodies, led on by piano playing of unsurpassed elegance. The melodic rush is continued with “The songs of Danny Galway”, followed by the storytelling of “The old magician”. Being about Bob Dylan or not, it´s still a feat unreachable by most bands and deserves a listen for its own sake. Closer “Mysterious” leaves us with the calmness of having finished a journey, feeling the peace of being at home.

Melodies are indeed eternal, and the singing on this album is without a doubt the work of genius. This is pop music in its most pleasing and artistic form. Each and every song here is essential to the experience. Even the sceptics will abandon their arguments faced with the beauty of this music. Here we have a collection of songs that sparkle like a clear autumn day. These are the moments that you long for as an afficionado of pop culture. The way ahead for the music that you long for and dream about. These songs are the musical equivalent of sitting in front of a log fire with a cup of hot chocolate with whipped cream after a long hike through a cold autumnal landscape. Sublime.

…Nicolas Winding Refn has dropped the ball big time.

Born into a Danish cinema family, partially brought up in America and making a real splash with his first movie “Pusher” as a mere 26-year old. The debut was a very realistic and gritty crime saga chronicling the seedy underbelly of the Copenhagen drug scene that kept most of the viewers on the edge of their seats, while the main character Frank through a series of really bad decisions hurried towards oblivion. You could see it as an early example of Scandinavian Noir, but in my mind it has always been a singular achievement from a rare new talent
. Cinematically pretty straightforward but packing a hard and visceral punch. Very good acting from the crème de la crème of Danish thespians, including the awesome Kim Bodnia. This guy is just great in everything he does. If you don´t believe me, just watch him in the Swedish/Danish TV-series “The Bridge”.
The follow-up “Bleeder” was much in the same vein, and carried the same energy forward. Many voices talked about a new star in the rising, and the early promise created a certain excitement. A few years of threading water followed, abruptly changed by the success of “Drive”. Almost universally hailed in Cannes and elsewhere, it´s in many ways a beautifully shot movie. I´ve never really understood the greatness of Ryan Gosling, but the lure of Christina Hendricks could never escape any warm-blooded male. That said, I´m not entirely sure that it´s mix of strong silent man, vulnerable but beautiful mother and ultraviolence really makes the grade. It´s catching for sure, but great? I don´t know and will have to watch it again to determine.

only god forgives

After this comes his latest movie “Only God Forgives”. A handful of great reviews conflicts with Cannes walk-outs and savaging by influential critics. On the surface it´s a story of expatriate American Julian and his brother Billy, running a drug ring in Bangkok barely disguised by their thai-boxing venue. After murdering a Thai child-prostitute in an almost suicidal chain of events, Billy is beaten to death by the girl´s father with the blessings of the mysterious Chang, a Thai policeman with a serious arch-angel complex. When the boy´s revengeful mother flies in from the US, a dire chain of events is set in motion, with much violence, bloodshed and mayhem as a result. Still, however brutal any character in the film is, nothing matches the foresight and dexterity of Chang. Swords are flashing, limbs are flying and blood is being let by the gallon. Not for the squeamish, belive me. Disturbing movie scenes very rarely make me flinch, but I have to confess that I found the eye-gouging part a bit too much.
So, what does this all add up to? Some reviewers have talked about metaphysical drama, biblical references and psychological archetypes. Others about colour and scenography, sometimes even comparisons with Lynch, Tarantino and Kubrick. I don´t find any of that especially relevant in this case, and think it´s important to consider the difference between communicating actual content and just exhibiting a slow-paced emptiness. Lots of red colours and strange persons singing karaoke without any relation to the general story doesn´t make a David Lynch. Graphic violence without a believable context and a story-generated dialogue is exploitative and not Tarantinoesque. Long shots without artistry or anything happening is just boring and has nothing to do with the mastery of Kubrick. Make no mistake, this is a very bad movie. Not even exchanging the depth of ideas for beautiful surface, as is sometimes seen in contemporary film output. This is just silly, and not even the obvious Oedipal references can save this trainwreck of a story. In spite of one good actress being in the film (although acting badly), the rest of the cast is a mess. The celebrated Ryan Gosling is without expression and seems somehow anaesthetized. There´s no coherent storyline and no reason why you should even bother to care what happens to these characters. Still worse, there´s no one in this movie that you would find even remotely sympathetic or with understandable motives for their actions.
While considering the different ways that people have tried to explain this movie I can´t help but think of the old quote attributed to Aristotle – “nature abhors a vacuum”. If it contains nothing, someone will try to fill it with something. Very much like the character Mr Chance played by Peter Sellers in the movie “Being There”, based on the 1970´s story by Jerzy Kosinski. That someone might find this movie visually interesting is not totally ununderstandable, even if I personally wince at the thought. However, that doesn´t change the fact that this is a blood-spattered emptiness.

…Netflix is a serious contender when it comes to TV-series.

Who would have imagined that Netflix, initially thought of as just a provider of streamed content, would evolve into a producer of cutting-edge television series? While being net-based has never been an argument for quality, Netflix has still managed to hold the attention of both script writers and high-caliber directors like David Fincher.

House of cards

Their first original series “House of cards” did everything right. A political drama set in Washington DC based on a story first dramatized by the BBC. Kevin Spacey as Congressman Frank Underwood, passed on for promotion to Secretary of State, is one of the most memorable television characters ever since Special Agent Cooper of Twin Peaks. The meta-TV scenes of Frank breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the viewers feels so fresh, forever wiping away boring voice-overs. As a beginners course on Machiavelli this series gives you more than you would have a right to expect. TV is not that often both entertaining and intelligent. The much anticipated season 2 will be released in February 2014. Until that, watch the first season and marvel at the quality of the story, the exceptional acting and the insights into the day to day realities of real politics. Whatever you do, don´t miss this. Season two is coming up very soon.

orange is the new black

“Orange is the new black” was the next series to catch my attention, and tells the story of middle-class woman Piper Chapman serving a jail term for the youthful and naïve participation in her lesbian girlfriend´s drug-trafficking operation. The fact that the actions she was sentenced for took place ten years ago does nothing to cushion the blow to her fairly privileged life-style, together with fiancé Larry. While her difficulties being incarcerated is the superficial thread of the series, much more depth is lent to the stories of the women in there with her. The combination of banality and life-changing events keeps the story alive and kicking, as well as being a modern time socio-economic study. Crime still being crime, it´s unusual to see an American series with this much understanding of the underlying social factors, while still avoiding the pitfalls of unaccountability.

Lilyhammer

Original series “Lilyhammer” premiered in January 2012 to an enthusiastic audience on Netflix and Norwegian national television. The story of New York mobster Frank Tagliano relocated to Lillehammer in Norway after testifying in a US mob trial might have seemed like a good idea. An unholy alliance of The Sopranos and Fleksnes, sharp Italian fashion and the Norwegian lusekofta, New York street scenes and the snowy expanse of Lillehammer. The resulting schizophrenia is evident already in the opening score and the sense of dislocation never goes away. All the respect built by Steven van Zandt from his days in the East Street Band, his own grossly undervalued solo career and as an integral part of the captivating The Sopranos cannot save him from this parody of himself. Every gesture and facial expression of Frank Tagliano is a very bad carbon copy of Silvio Dante, making the viewer cringe behind the spread fingers of a hand held over the eyes. Much is made of the collision between the violence-solves-everything ethic of Frank and the meek hunched-down-under-authority Norwegians. Even though it´s done in an attempt to make fun, it´s more funny peculiar than funny ha ha. Despite good intentions this series fails in so many ways, with most of its humour being quite unintentional. When I was a kid everybody in Sweden told Norwegian jokes (very much like the American Polish jokes and the British Irish jokes). It seems like we don´t need to anymore, the Norwegians are doing it themselves.

…this was a New Year´s trip to remember.

After being on call for a whole week over Christmas, me and the wife finally packed our bags and left for a well-deserved vacation. The first stop was London and we arrived at the famous Brown´s Hotel in Mayfair late afternoon New Year´s Eve. An excellent room with a complimentary bottle of Champagne waiting in an ice-bucket set the tone for the evening. Dinner was pre-booked at Nobu Berkley Street, just two blocks away. New Year´s Eve at a restaurant being what it is the food was still not a disappointment, with a well composed and expertly prepared menu that can be seen here – New Year Menu Nobu. Most memorable being the Wagyu with truffles, which was exceptional. As could be expected on a night like this the service wasn´t spectacularly good, but still more than acceptable. After dinner some wild dancing in the bar downstairs commenced before walking the two blocks back to the hotel, flushed and happy.
New Year´s Day showed London from a slightly less flattering side – rain, chill and strong gusts of wind almost tearing the complimentary Brown´s umbrella from my hands. Not even the New Year´s Day parade that had left large parts of Mayfair cordoned off could muster enough interest to keep us on the streets for very long. Better to withdraw to the Brown´s Tea Room for an absolutely lovely Afternoon Tea in front of the fireplace.

The following day initiated the next phase of the trip, with an early wake-up call and transportation to Gatwick Airport for an eight hour flight to the Caribbean island of St Lucia. Historically alternating between French and British rule it has now settled as an independent territory, while still being a part of the British Commonwealth. Although English is the official language, the French influence is still present in the local patois Kwéyòl.
The unexpected storm that hit St Lucia during Christmas had messed up all kinds of transportation and many hotels had difficulties with guests not being able to return home colliding with new arrivals. For our part this meant that the room we´d booked at the exclusive Anse Chastanet resort wasn´t available for the first night. This could have been dealt with in a number of ways, but for us it amounted to having to spend the first night at the equally swanky Ladera resort and then being upgraded to the Jade Mountain part of Anse Chastanet (more about that later). Ladera is situated on a hillside between the two picturesque Piton Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage site of rare beauty. The journey from the airport to the resort gave ample opportunity to observe the ravages of the storm, with huge mudslides from the steep mountainsides, large trees partially blocking the road and detours through provisional water-filled dirt-tracks. Upon arriving at our dwelling we sat sipping yet another complimentary Champagne while enjoying a very special arrangement that´s sometimes used in St Lucia resorts. The room has only three walls and where the fourth one should be you instead have an opening towards the magnificent view of the Pitons and the sea below. A beautiful plunge pool makes up the border between the spacious room and the hillside, making it wonderfully open to the elements while still being totally private. A first evening on the island that initially seemed less than ideal, ended with a delicious meal at the Dasheene restaurant with its breathtaking view of the Pitons. Exceptionally fresh grilled scallops and yellow-fin Tuna tartare, followed by blackened and grilled Dorado together with assorted vegetables and grilled plantains.

Transportation from Ladera to Anse Chastanet meant a shaky back-seat ride through the small community of Soufriere, ending with a climb up a ridiculously bad road to the reception area of the resort. Two wonderful beaches, a hillside covered with rooms and suites, with stairs leading to the exclusive enclave of Jade Mountain. Sort of a resort in the restort, Jade Mountain overlooks it all in its futuristic splendor. How someone could have built something like this in such a remote and unaccessible location is beyond me. The rooms and suites of Jade Mountain rises in several levels from the hillside with the missing fourth wall giving an unsurpassed view of both Pitons. Colour-coded bridges connects the different rooms to the cliff-side, making it a both daring and beautiful architectonical feat. I assure you, everybody arriving here will begin by standing wide-eyed with dropped jaws.
The generous upgrade to Jade Mountain offered to us by the management was of course something that made an already great experience even better.

Jade Mountain 1

Jade Mountain 2

A beautiful room open to the view of the Pitons, an elevated Jacuzzi, the attentive 24 hour butler service and access to the Jade Club gourmet restaurant, what´s not to like. A typical day involved untroubled sleep in the big mosquito-net covered four poster bed, waking up to birdsong at sunrise with a light breeze keeping you comfortable. Every morning a colourful colibri visited the lime tree standing on the slope outside our room, giving a unique exhibition of the wonders of nature. After the wife´s yoga session on the aptly named Celestial Terrace, breakfast was brought to our room by the butler. Fresh fruit juices, different kinds of bread, youghurt, a variety of omelettes and coffee or tea. At one of the two beaches friendly attendants immediately set up comfortable beach chairs and offered fresh towels. Drinks, fruit, ice cream and a variety of foods were promptly delivered to your beach chair upon request, the frozen banana Daquiri quickly becoming a favourite. Time at the beach was split between the more popular Anse Chastanet beach (with its proximity to the resort and all the water sports on offer), and the Anse Mamin beach a 5 minute walk away (offering stillness, sublime beauty and of course the tasty Jungle Burgers).

Anse Mamin

Anse Chastanet

Banana daquiri

After relaxing under our straw parasolls, swimming in the clear ocean and generally being pampered with every conceivable indulgence (including the ever present Frozen Banana Daquiris), we returned to our room to dress up for the night´s dinner. Several restaurants were on offer, with slightly different characteristics and levels of ambition. Most of our dinners were had at the Jade Mountain Club, offering inventive and high-end three course menus every night – highlights being beer-braised mussels, spring rolls filled with slow-cooked short ribs, braised Dorado with vegetable stew, pan-seared blue Marlin with noodles, Brussel sprouts and reduction of ginger, as well as a fabulous marinated flank steak. Another high point was chef Jonathan Dearden´s gourmet dinner with wine pairnings, serving up a five course menu at the Treehouse restaurant.

Not everything in life is about food though, and during our stay we managed to fit in a few other activities. A sunset cruise on the 42 foot sailing yacht “Searenity” with captain Kerwin and his first mate, as well as a guided snorkeling tour to an otherwordly beautiful Caribbean bay between the Pitons. More snorkeling was done on both beaches, just wish someone had told us about the sea ants.

Eventually all good things comes to an end, and our last night on St Lucia was destined to be something really special. A six-course gourmet meal prepared by the chef of Jade Mountain and served just for us in total seclusion under the stars on the candle-lit Celestial Terrace. Courses brought in by a dedicated waiter, presented by the chef himself and the wines poured by the sommelier. Most of the time we were left alone in the extremely beautiful ambience, being able to walk around the terrace between courses watching the pitch black starry sky and stealing some moments of slow dancing fuelled by the overall romantic air. A truly unforgettable experience.

Then all that remained was the trip home. Going from 28 degrees Celsius to minus 15 in a single day is not something to wish for. But hey, that´s just the way things go.