Altered Carbon

Altered-Carbon-2

Is it time to talk about preposterously unrealistic punching? Because there’s an awful lot of it in Altered Carbon, a show that seems to revel in fight set pieces to the point of tedium. In each of these fight scenes, it appears to me that every single punch and body blow would be enough to kill, or render unconscious, the punchee, and break several metacarpals in the puncher.

This Netflix show has been trumpeted as a possible multi-year juggernaut ratings winner, Game of Thrones style, not that Netflix ever talk about viewing figures. If they make another series, and another, I guess we’ll know. It’s been well-reviewed: by Tim Goodman of The Hollywood Reporter, for example, and it’s one of a string of high profile genre shows that seem to be taking the TV world by storm. We’ve moved on from Cops and Docs and Lawyers to time travellers, space pirates, and cyberpunks.

I should be pleased. And I am, to an extent. Travelers is a great little show, full of human warmth and twisty plot lines; Star Trek Disco is a fairly triumphant return for Trek, give or take the last two episodes of the season; and Stranger Things is interdimensional MK Ultra-tastic fun. On the other hand, The Expanse, while glossy, is beset by plot pacing issues and dreadful dialogue; and the returning X-Files is mostly pathetic and confused.

So what of Altered Carbon? The premise is straight out of 90s cyberpunk: people are more or less immortal, if they can afford to keep growing new bodies, and their memories and personality are stored in “stacks”, solid state drives essentially, that live in a strangely vulnerable position in the back of their heads. The series is based on a 2002 novel by Richard Morgan, which I haven’t knowingly read, but the premise is familiar enough to someone who’s been reading SF for as many decades as I have.

It’s a dystopian, Blade Runner-alike world, and the series production design is a straight rip-off of Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic film. Furthermore, the jargon bandied about by the characters is similar enough to sound familiar: stacks and sleeves vs. replicants and skinjobs. But whereas the extreme fights in Blade Runner were a result of the replicants’ exceptional strength, the bodies fighting in Altered Carbon are supposed to be human (though one of them gets a bionic arm).

Anyway, super-soldier Takeshi Kovacs is woken from a 200-year hibernation by a rich immortal in order to investigate the murder of one of his skinjobs sleeves. Turns out, he’s been dropped into a cop’s body, and this cop’s partner Kristin Ortega wants him back. There’s your set up, and there are other interesting elements: a hotel run by an AI that thinks it’s Edgar Allen Poe; interrogations taking place in virtual space; naked clone fights like something out of an 18-rated Matrix movie.

But the parts are greater than the sum, and I did not ever warm to this show. For a start, I find it hard to understand who benefits from this dystopia. I mean, it’s a horrible fucking world, and the rich people live in the sky above the weather and all, but they don’t really seem to be enjoying themselves. Yes, a minor point, but the main thing I couldn’t get past was all the fighting. It seemed as if there were about three set pieces per episode, and though lots of minor assailants get their stacks blown out, and our main characters seem to get horribly beaten up on a regular basis, their powers of recovery are so remarkable that it seems they can bounce back from anything without any ill effects in a day or so.

Sure, it’s ridiculous to get uptight about unrealistic recovery times in a show about people who live in floating houses with their personalities stored in hard drives, but it just felt like there was nothing at stake.

So, my request to Netflix is as follows: if you want a Game of Thrones style fantasy drama to hook and enthrall people, consider throwing some money at some Tim Powers properties. Something about romantic poets beset by vampires, perhaps?

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A couple of book reviews

30312456Cold Welcome by Elizabeth Moon

I picked this one up from the library, confident that, as it was the first in a series, I wouldn’t be lost. I’ve not read any Elizabeth Moon before, and should have twigged that a series called “Vatta’s Peace” comes after a series called “Vatta’s War”. Doh.

So there are characters and situations here, back story etc., that is only filled in sketchily. I scurried off to Wikipedia to fill in some blanks, but on the whole it wasn’t a problem, except in the sense that a lot of the characters are merely sketched here, on the assumption that you know them from before.

Anyway, this is a military science fiction adventure set in a space trading/war universe that reminded me of nothing so much as the old Ambrosia software game Escape Velocity and sequels. Ky Vatta is an admiral in some space fleet on a visit to her home world. Her shuttle is sabotaged, possibly by a rival company, and she ditches in a hostile polar region with some other survivors, not sure who she can trust. My problem, however, is that I don’t really care about these warring companies. There’s an academic point to be made about capitalism and wastefulness, and what happens when corporations become quasi-governmental, sure. But I’m not going to root for one corporation over another, or really care about the people who work in their employ. Perhaps if I’d read the previous six books or whatever.

Overall, this just made me feel tired. Nobody can trust anybody, people are constantly being attacked, or abducted, and for what? Power and profit? Ugh. So you get this atmosphere of heightened paranoia, a constant game of Prisoner’s Dilemma (always betray etc.) which I’m thinking might be a fairly accurate representation of how it feels to be among the super-rich. You want to keep all your stuff, other people are trying to get your stuff, you want their stuff etc. Exhausting.

There’s no proper resolution to the story, which has some interesting elements (a strange and secret installation with a mystery as to who built it), and there’s already one sequel, but I don’t think I’ll be bothering. And here’s the central problem of these multi-volume series: give up at any point, and you’ve wasted your time.

512TBFMt7aL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

This novel is a winner of the Arthur C Clarke award, and like Tchaikovsky’s Dogs of War, is an excellent exploration of creatures that have been “uplifted” by biotechnology to the level of intelligence, co-operation and technology. It’s also a novel in the sub-genre(s) of space colonisation, generation ships, and Deep Time.

So humanity is at the peak of its technological development, busily terraforming planets and planting the seeds of life so that arriving colonists might find habitable worlds prepared for them — in one specific case by uplifted smart monkeys. But on the cusp of success, the whole thing falls apart. The monkeys don’t make it and nanovirus designed for them uplifts something else instead.

Centuries later, the dregs of humanity, who have long forgotten the advanced tech of their forebears, arrive in a ship looking for somewhere, anywhere to land.

Such is the set up of this novel, which uses twin narrative threads (with subtle parallels) to tell the stories of what’s happening on the ship, and what’s developing on the planet. And there’s more Prisoner’s Dilemma, so that’s a thing, only this time you care more.

portia-labiata-jumping-spider
Portia Labiata, jumping spider

As with his Dogs of War, it’s a surprisingly easy read, with well-drawn characters and a fascinating portrayal of alien thought, which must result from extensive research. Tchaikovsky is a worthy winner of the Clarke award, and writes accessible science fiction based on the kind of grand concepts that most people just don’t think about, but perhaps should. I mean, the media call this kind of thing a “breakthrough” but rarely pose the moral question: just because you can, does that mean you should?

 

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

51AQy9+uVPL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve never had any time for io9.com, or any of the former Gawker media websites, even under their new ownership, so I’d never heard of Charlie Jane Anders, author of the 2017 Nebula Award winning novel All the Birds in the Sky, before I picked it up to read.

This paperback edition had a cover that communicated nothing to me, apart, perhaps, the publisher’s desire to conceal its genre. Substitute “girls” for “birds” and it looks like a typical front-table-at-Waterstones title. Still, Milton Keynes Library had undermined that game by placing a silly “Sci-Fi/Fantasy” sticker, featuring a dragon, on its spine.

For once, the melding of those two genres is apposite, because this novel is a bold attempt to have it both ways: to write about technology and a fucked climate in a recognisably realistic version of the near future; and to write about magic and witchcraft at the same time. I suppose this is what you might expect from a generation raised on Star Wars and Harry Potter. But I wasn’t, and while I can see the appeal of this, I didn’t really enjoy it. It was an easy read, but at the same time I didn’t find myself lost in it and responding to it in the same way I did for the novels of Becky Winters or Anne Leckie.

Anders’ style is something like Douglas Coupland meets Lemony Snicket, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that this had the tone of a YA novel, but with some age-inappropriate content. Depending on your mood and taste, you might find this an engaging read. But parts of it felt to me like Harry Potter fan fiction, and there was an overall glibness that struck me as smug.

The plot* concerns a pair of misfits (one a witch, one a scientist) who are both trying to save the world from an anthropocentric apocalypse. Both witchcraft and science are left without detail, in a hand-wavy way, so I never really felt that this world was built with depth.

*In fact, the plot is so barely-there that I’d say that this was yet another example of Menippean Satire rather than novel. As a Menippean Satire, I can forgive its lack of narrative drive, but its lack of interesting ideas is more of a problem.

Which leaves me puzzling as to why this won the Nebula award. A cursory check reveals that this has had mixed reviews at best, though a lot of support from within the SF community. My conclusion is that this was seen as an “accessible” genre novel, one that wears its genre clothes lightly and might achieve some cross-over success, like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I’m trying to imagine a person who doesn’t really like Fantasy and Science Fiction but who might like this: I guess? As part of a larger picture, there’s a whole generation of adults who were raised on Harry Potter, and I suppose the publishers are trying to draw them in. I’m not one of them.

Tappety tap tap – How The X-Files disappointed us all and how it’s all somehow Elon Musk’s fault

It’s no surprise to anyone that the 2018 season (11 of that parish) of The X Files started badly. What the producers should have done, if they really wanted to make more, was to throw away the unresolved story arc from the 2016 edition (Season 10), write it off as a bad job, and just give us a few monster-of-the-week episodes of a similar quality to Mulder and Scully Meet the Were Monster, which was the only decent one to come out of the revival.

Instead, they gave us Scully in a hospital repeating, ‘We have to find my son,’ and Mulder being irrational and Cigarette Smoking Man saying, ‘Mind if I smoke?’ And a lot of monologuing and frowny faces. Oh, and either an alien pathogen that will wipe us all out or a secret space programme: those are your choices. Important to remember that.

Anyway, it’s all bollocks, and its a shame to see that pioneering beacon of the Platinum Age of TV – the TV series that led some of us in the 90s to argue that, “TV is now better than the movies,” and to really mean it – reduced to the level of a bedroom farce. And please: turn the bloody lights on.

Nowadays, I even wonder why Netflix bothers to put movies on its channel. They dropped The Cloverfield Experiment this week without much fanfare. Judging from the reviews, it’s about as good as The X-Files, and I’ve no interest in watching it or the hundreds of other Netflix Original movies on the service. I took up an offer of a year of Sky Movies on NowTV, and I can barely find anything worth watching on it that was made after 1975.

Which brings me to Elon Musk and why this is all, probably, his fault. Musk, lest we forget, gave us PayPal, which is literally the worst way to exchange goods and services for money. He’s also working both sides of the extinction/space programme equation with his claim to be saving the world with electric vehicles/batteries and also ensuring humanity’s survival when that fails by enabling a Mars colony.

But both of those things, like a bad X-Files episode, are dangerous fiction. The idea that you can save the planet by (a) building and selling big, ugly luxury cars to rich people and (b) increasing the use of current battery tech is a joke. The cheapest Model X in the UK is over £86,000, for which money you could buy, oh, three or four second-hand Priuses. And lithium-ion batteries require the extraction of finite resources from the earth: not just lithium, but cobalt and nickel too. The price of cobalt has increased from just over $20 per tonne in 2015 to around $60 per tonne in 2017. As the dollar signs spin in the eyes of mining company executives, there is certain to be a rush to extract these minerals cheaply. Last time I looked, the mining industry did not have the best environmental record. They’re not averse to blowing up mountains and pumping filth into the water supply. Increased demand for Lithium means that a smaller proportion is extracted from brine using solar energy and more is extracted from hard rock.

Which is before you get to the dead animal skin seats and farting occupant. If Elon Musk was building buses and mag-lev trains, I might view him more positively (I’m aware of the Boring Company, but private cars are the problem, not the solution).

Which brings us to Space-X and its rocket programme. I’m not one to argue that this is a waste of resources which could be used to alleviate human suffering. We can do both, just as we could have done both in the 1960s. Governments can always do more, and human suffering results from ideology, not scarcity.

No, my problem with Space-X is that it is both a pointless project with no chance of success and an elitist scheme for the rich to indulge their Ayn Rand fantasies about building a citadel to ride out the apocalypse. The notion that there can be an offworld human outpost to survive a catastrophe here on earth is as insidious as the idea of an afterlife. Both give believers permission to let this world, here and now, go to shit. Space-X is going to be used to launch spy satellites, woop de do.

Furthermore, I am sick to the back teeth of how our culture makes heroes out of billionaires. The worship of ‘successful’ people is another fiction, ignoring the factors that really enable them to get where they are. They’d be nothing without the society that supports them. The infrastructure, the education system, the facilities that their companies depend on to exist. I mean, did Musk build the internet? No, that was built with taxpayers’ money. The billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies from which Musk’s companies benefit are rarely spoken of. It’s the welfare state, same as it ever was, for billionaires.

And as for the David Bowie music and the “Don’t Panic” cuteness, I’m not buying it. I was reminded of a Baudrillard quote last night, watching the launch: Behind these smiling eyes, there lurks a cold ferocious beast that’s fearfully stalking us.

Finally, yes, I did watch the launch, and the two-booster touchdown, but as the Space X presenter said everything was, “Awesome,” I couldn’t help thinking we were a long way from James Burke and the Apollo landings.

Desssert Isssland Dissscs – Take 3

[Speaking to Roy Plomley’s head in a jar] For my third appearance on the show, Roy, I’ve selected eight disks that mean a lot to me, right now. For those spotting trends, this selection sees a welcome return of two from my first island visit, but none at all from my second. What was I thinking?

Here’s the 2018 eight:

  • I Won’t Dance – Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra. This particular song is my favourite Sinatra track twice over. First of all on his best 50s album (A Swingin’ Affair) and second of all on his best 60s album (Sinatra/Basie). For this latter version, he used a stripped back, slower-tempo arrangement by Neil Hefti, and he leans way, way back. The Basie orchestra’s instrumental interventions build to a rollicking climax, but most of all, they play in the white space left by Sinatra’s horizontal vocal. This one I can trace back to my younger years: my mum had the record, released in the year I was born. But I didn’t like it: it took me years to gain the musical education to appreciate what was going on. The song is a wondrous piece of work, too: from a Fred Astaire dance sequence to Sinatra’s definitive versions with Nelson Riddle and the Basie. For heaven rest us, I’m not asbestos. If the wind changes, I’d select the 1957 version, for Sinatra’s “Ring-a-ding-ding” improv on its own.
  • Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band. Sullied as it has been by the Top Gear years (Clarkson edition), I’ve carried an affection for this track since my teenage years, when I would occasionally hear it on Radio Caroline, which I would listen to with the radio pressed up against my ear, under the bed clothes. Even so, the Top Gear it reminds me of is the William Woollard version, because the Clarkson era used that shitty el cheapo BBC cover version. As I said the first time I picked it, I especially love the bit in the middle that you would never hear on Top Gear. It’s pentatonic, man.

(No video of this one, so the audio will have to do)

  • Detroit Medley – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (Winterland ’78). Is there anything that sums up the peak of Springsteen’s performing career better than this? The 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town tour was his moment: not yet so big that he’s having to play stadia, nor even yet profitable – if you take him at his own autobiographical word. And yet: he’s big enough to have an arena-filling cohort of devoted fans and enough local radio stations who want to broadcast whole fucking shows and thus gift posterity a series of bootleg recordings that stand apart for their clarity and quality. And this is still six years before his crowds grew with the addition of The Normals, who were attracted to the pumped up, shouty, Born in the USA Bruce. The Medley’s origins lie in a pair of singles put out by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. The first was a traditional blues number (C C Rider) combined with Little Richard’s “Jenny Jenny” (also known as (“Jenny Take a Ride”). Spotting a winning formula, the band next put out “Devil with the Blue Dress” (a hit for Motown) and another Little Richard classic, “Good Golly Miss Molly”. Springsteen turns these three minute pop songs into a 9-11 minute show stopper. His cover versions are in themselves quite faithful to the originals, but it’s in the improvised breakdown before the climax that he combines the roots rock ’n’ roll with the showmanship for which he is famed. With stage antics falling somewhere between James Brown and Orson Welles, Springsteen drops the band down to a pulse for his twangy  bass-notes guitar solo, and then builds it all up again before calling a halt and reading out what seems like an emergency announcement from the hall management. If you are in possession of a weak heart, or a weak stomach, can you please step out of the venue during the next section of this song because it might be DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH. He then calls up Clarence Clemons to aid him in demonstrating the actions which will do no harm, before adding, “You can even get off with light injuries an a short trip to the emergency room when we do THIS. Now… I bet all them guys on the radio are wonderin’ what we’re doin’.… I didn’t do it YET!” At which point, together with Clarence, and freely baiting the radio audience who had the temerity to stay home, he begins a cross stage boogie to Professor Roy Bittan’s rock ’n’ roll piano that descends into chaos before the band bring it back to “Jenny Jenny” with a massive finish. And the remarkable thing about the Detroit Medley was that it would always come at the end of a three hour show, and almost certainly leave the audience begging to be allowed home. But Springsteen would never be satisfied with that, and would leap from this incredible piece of theatre into a version of “Twist and Shout” or “Raise Your Hand” or “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”, leaving all concerned wrung out. At Winterland on 15th December 1978, he followed this extraordinary performance with “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and then “Raise Your Hand” and then “Quarter to Three”.
  • That’s Where It’s At – Sam Cooke. My daughter’s great insight about Sam Cooke is that he is all the evidence you need to understand that songs aren’t poems. Cooke’s smooth, mellifluous voice can do wonders with the most unpromising material. Listen to him sing “It’s All Right” or “We’re Having a Party” and you understand that the most pedestrian lyrics become poetry when performed by a master vocalist. My personal favourite is this: the almost conversational hesitations, stumbles, improvisations, snatching at the words at times, weaving in and out of the simplistic backing vocals and droning horns. The only problem with this is that it’s only 150 seconds long.
  • No Next Time – Allison Moorer. I love the way Moorer uses the (male) backing vocal on this: seeming to anticipate what he’s going to say, echoing his words even as he sings them, demonstrating in song that she’s heard it all too many times before and that she’s had enough of this shit. There are two ways this song uses such musical cutting. The second is the juxtaposition of the just breaking up distortion on the lead guitar as it plays against a lush background of strings
  • Learning to Fly – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Live at Bonnaroo). The counterpoint to the show-stopping energy of Springsteen, Petty’s way with an audience was to carry them with him on a wave of weary joy. This live version of this so-simple song has a poignancy that only feels stronger following his death in 2017. Stevie Nicks stands in the wings to sing BVs, and Petty carries most of the song’s weight on his shoulders, with a strummed acoustic guitar. From the first chords, the audience are with him, singing every lyric, providing the beat, so that you barely notice that the band are, after all, accompanying him with a stripped back arrangement. I think Mike’s on an electric mandolin. At the second chorus: that’s where the tears prick into my eyes, as Tom says, “Yes it is,” and Benmont plays some piano. Then the song is stripped back again for, “Some say life will beat you down…” On the third chorus, Petty sings “But I ain’t got wings,” in his Dylan voice, then lets the crowd take over. And there you have the blessing and healing power of music, the communion between an artist and his audience, as he improvises lyrics to their singing of the chorus.
  • Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt. This single is quite an obscure one in Tift Merritt’s back catalogue. I love the rolling piano, the relaxed heartbeat of the song, and the lead guitar’s counterpoint to the vocal. The song was supposedly written about Hunter S. Thompson, but I don’t think it matters if you know that or not. It’s a great uplifting song for when you’re feeling, well, weary.
  • The Pretender – Jackson Browne. My theme song.

Caught between the longing for love
And the struggle for the legal tender
Where the sirens sing and the church bells ring
And the junk man pounds his fender.
Where the veterans dream of the fight
Fast asleep at the traffic light
And the children solemnly wait
For the ice cream vendor:
Out into the cool of the evening
Strolls the Pretender
He knows that all his hopes and dreams
Begin and end there

Britannia: the silly isles?

Contains spoilers for Britannia: the whole series.

Britannia-932x1398Britannia, a co-production between Sky in the UK and Amazon for the rest of the world, dropped onto NowTV at the end of last week, and I’ve, um, watched the whole lot.

Which must mean it’s good, right? Because in the Platinum Age, nobody needs to sit through mediocre TV. So, yes, spoilers: it’s watchable, enjoyable, sometimes too gruesome, but interesting enough to sustain my interest over its run.

Inevitably, even if it wasn’t trying to be, it’s going to be unfavourably compared to Game of Thrones, which is the last half decade’s flagship show, the one to which all others must aspire. Game of Thrones is big budget, epic, painted on a vast canvas, with a huge cast of characters and a multitude of storylines. So can Sky money and Amazon money compete? Not really. Let’s get that over with: Britannia is faster-paced, not afraid to skip “four moons” to get to the point, and in terms of locations seems to offer a limited range, with some characters seemingly sitting around in tents, others running around in the same woods, and a few others hanging around in some unlikely looking gorges. And, oh, Stonehenge, or something very like it. Filmed in the Czech Republic and Wales, it manages to look quite expensive, but without anywhere near the expansive geography and world-building of Game of Thrones, and without giving you a sense of where places were in relation to each other, or how long it might take to travel between them. And no dragons.

The Romans are in Britain. Led by David Morrissey, who plays Aulus Plautius who historically did lead the (second) Roman invasion in 43 CE, and who became Britain’s first governor. He faces the divided tribes of Britain, led by King Pellanor of the Cantii (Ian McDiarmid) and hate-filled Zoë Wanamaker as Antedia of the Regni. The Cantii were historically based in Kent (hence Canterbury, I guess), while the Regni were next door in Sussex. Alongside these two warring monarchs are the druids, led by mystic in makeup Mackenzie Crook, who plays Veran. Presumably we’re supposed to believe the druids are all over the place, though if it is meant to be Stonehenge, then that’s Wiltshire, and the druids’ last stand against the Romans was in Anglesey.

So that’s the historical geography, westward from Kent to Wales, which is after all the route of Watling Street: all the way from Canterbury to Bangor. But this isn’t really a history, nor meant to be enjoyed as a historically accurate drama. Instead, it contains mystics and magic, prophecies and hallucinogenic visions; and at least one character who straddles the land of the living and the dead. The dialogue is salty, with enough modern idiom to make it clear that the showrunners (the Butterworths et al) don’t give a shit about accuracy. You just don’t get much of a sense that these people are spread all over Britain. It sometimes feels as if the Romans set up camp on the Medway and that was it.

It all begins with an interrupted naming ceremony, as a tweenage girl, Cait, is about to choose her adult name. She’s already broken a taboo by speaking to her badass sister,  and then the Romans arrive, and brutally kill or enslave almost everybody in the village. Cait’s captured father is blinded by one of the Romans, which leads all and sundry to freak out when they hear of a prophecy about a blind man and his small daughter. Cait herself knocks around in various places, but usually ends up teaming up, like Arya Stark, with a grumpy hypno-mystic, Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who variously tries to drop her, kill her, and protect her.

Meanwhile, Pellanor (who’s name is lifted from the Arthurian legends) is in conflict about how to deal with the Romans with his two kids, Julian Rhind-Tutt as Phelan, and Kelly Reilly as Kerra – who is supposed to have some Roman blood. There are complicated marriages, jealousies, spies, deserters, sieges, and gruesome, gruesome death ceremonies, with way too much gory detail.

Rhind-Tutt doesn’t have much to do at first except act as go-between for his sister and father, but it’s when he goes off on his own quest with captive tatooed bride Ania that he comes into his own, producing an entertaining turn, full of sardonic invective reminiscent of The Hound in Game of Thrones.

There is a lot of pointless running around in the woods, and a great deal of splashing around in chilly-looking water, and it does sag a little in the middle of its nine episodes, but the final three are great, and the ending of the siege in the season finale is spectacular. What the show needed was a tenth episode, Thrones-style, to set people up for what comes next, but instead a little of that was tacked onto the end. As I said, it doesn’t have the pacing quite right, but it is bonkers enough to win my approval.

Best record of 2017 addendum

I am afraid that I have become a little evangelical about this late entry into the best-of-2017 listings. I dared recommend it to a friend, and now look at me, writing a blog about it.

I’d never heard of Hiss Golden Messenger before Tift Merritt Instagrammed her involvement in backing vocals on this record. They’re a North Carolina outfit (hence the Merritt connection) best described these days as Americana, though Wikipedia describes them thus:

The band’s music contains elements from various musical genres, such as folk, country, dub, country soul, rhythm and blues, bluegrass, jazz, funk, swamp pop, gospel, blues, and rock. The band’s style was also described as “alternative country” and “country rock.” The band’s main influences include the Beatles, The Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield. The band has been compared to Will Oldham and Bill Callahan.

Indeed. The not-misspelled name Hiss Golden Messenger hints at religionism whilst also acting as an open text you can interpret in any way you want. As someone who once started a blog called Hoses of the Holy, I appreciate the not-thereness of the name. Like my own band name, it’s a placeholder for whatever the creator(s) want to put there.

So to the music. Hallelujah Anyhow was released back in September, and (last I looked) was available for cheap on iTunes, and you can download it from Amazon for £6.19. It’s on Spotify, too, I hear, though I won’t have Spotify in the house. It’s a great-sounding record: something like Tom Petty’s Wildflowers with the rolling rhythmic groove of 70s Fleetwood Mac. The lyrics are literate and the vocal style is a less grating Dylan (John Prine is a close analogue).

Most importantly, this record is uplifting: a ray of sunshine in the world of 45 and Brexit, economic misery and hardship. It’s the antidote to our dark times, and unlike an opioid, won’t kill you.

This comes with my highest recommendation, which is that I might whisper it’s name to you.

Thoughts on Coco

bc19074249108112759e67a814c9bda2Weird to see some reviews of Pixar’s Coco today, with its official release date tomorrow, because it has of course been in UK cinemas for a week already. I saw it last weekend with my 17 yo kid (who paid, much to my delight).

I can’t really review films without reviewing the audience. In this case, we were (having foolishly booked a 4:15 pm screening) largely surrounded by families with very young children, and it was, to be honest, a bit of a shitshow. The knee-high kiddies were bad enough: bored, restless, running around, whining and crying — and that’s before we get to a film which is, at best, “made for everyone” rather than a kids’ film. But I reserve special ire for their parents who were making more noise, getting up for food more often, and bringing in those hideous, smelly trays of nachos etc. (many of which were left, half-eaten, with orange cheese dripping everywhere, on the seats at the end). Which is not to mention the actual food throwing that a couple of the fathers indulged in.

Honestly, I’ve seen so much bad parenting of late that I am sorry to be the one to tell you that we are all fucking doomed. Forget Brexit: the upbringing of the next generation is in the hands of imbeciles.

I personally don’t think Coco is suitable for children so young. Sure, there’s a zany dog and some skeletons falling apart and coming back together, but the truth is that none of these kids are going to remember seeing this film. It’s a bit like the Baby’s First Christmas thing. Parents are wasting their money if they think a two-hour movie about Día de Muertos is going to entertain a child before the age of reason. I mean, I was a precocious kid, but I think I was four before I got my first cinema trip — which I do remember.

Coco has a story similar to any number of Pixar films: a quest for a lost something. With Inside Out it was a memory; with Coco, the kid tries to steal something and ends up in the Land of the Dead, needing to find his long-lost great grandfather in order to get back home before he dies for real. The central metaphor is that being forced to live without pursuing his true calling (music) is a kind of death. But his family hate music and musicians (for reasons) and want him to make shoes. So he goes on his quest, and discovers many things along the way.

The film is beautiful to look at. Maybe overly saturated (I suspect this is a side effect of the 3D version and its inevitable dimming of colour), but full of delightful detail and flights of fancy. It also has a sweet soundtrack that pulls so hard at the heartstrings that your eyes start watering by the end. One laugh-out-loud sequence features Frida Kahlo choreographing a musical revue. When I say laugh-out-loud: I think it was only me (and 17 yo) laughing.

The key concept here, upon which the whole story hinges, is the idea of the “final death”, the one that sees you vanish even from the Land of the Dead if there is nobody left alive who remembers you. It’s a great way of explaining the significance of the festival and a hook for the B plot.

Anyway, notwithstanding the disgusting behaviour of the food-throwing dads in the Odeon audience, Coco is pretty great.

Travelers and Manhunt: Unabomber – reviews

Travelers Season 2 (Netflix)

travelers-netflix-eric-mccormack-castI really enjoyed this “mid-price Canadian science fiction” series when I watched its first season on Netflix. You start out with low expectations, thinking it’s going to be just another one of those high concept shows that starts out okay, goes downhill, and/or gets cancelled quite quickly. But it turned out to be much stronger than I thought.

The basic (low budget) premise is that the future is fucked, so that ‘travelers’ from there are being sent back (in teams of five) to try to fix things. They transfer their consciousnesses* into the bodies of people who are about to die, take over their lives, connect with the rest of their team, and carry out missions. So far so ordinary. Where this show shines is with its cast (including Eric McCormack and MacKenzie Porter), and its emotionally intelligent writing, which is not afraid to spend time on the consequences that ensue when a different personality takes over a body. An old man in the body of an athletic teenager, for example. Or a highly intelligent medic in the body of a mentally disabled woman.

Where a lesser show might simply want to focus on the mission-of-the-week and forget the messy personal stuff, this show knows that in the end, that’s where the best stories are going to be. Like breaking Protocol Four, for example, which is don’t change the future by making a baby using your new host body.

So to Season 2, which picks up the conflict with things going wrong, the future changing, and the team’s Historian becoming less and less able to predict the present. This season takes time to build up relationships between some of the travelers and their host families, leading to some powerful episodes that have a real emotional impact — and a huge payoff at the season’s end.

I binged it over a few days: so good.

Manhunt: Unabomber (Netflix)

1998_unabomber_01Not to be confused with Netflix’s Mindhunter, this show is a dramatisation of another true FBI story involving profiling: the hunt for Ted Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber. Kaczynski carried out a decades long bombing campaign, targeting academics and others involved in modern technology, which he considered to be the root cause of all of society’s problems.

Kaczynski was caught thanks to what came to be known as forensic linguistics, which is to say, he had a very distinctive and somewhat archaic writing style, which his own brother recognised when the Unabomber’s manifesto was published in The Washington Post.

This is a fascinating TV dramatisation, which uses a multi-threaded narrative to take us through events before and after Kaczynski’s capture, and a number of flashbacks to the bomber’s childhood and the years leading up to his retreat from modern life. The show manages to find sympathy for the man, who was one of those child prodigies who never quite fulfilled his potential. In fact, I’d say he’s the poster child for the dangers of pushing kids out of their peer group. He skipped a grade in school (jumping from 6th to 8th), thus leaving behind his age mates and becoming a freak who ended up isolated and angry. There’s a fanciful scene in which he delivers a boobytrapped classroom note to someone who had hurt his feelings. Then he went to Harvard at 16, where he got pulled into a brutal programme of psychological experiments that led to him being personally abused and belittled on a weekly basis.

The upshot was a man who failed to fulfil his early promise, still got his PhD, but then gave up teaching after two years and went to live in the wilds of Montana in a mathematically perfect log cabin. His bombing campaign ensued.

Meanwhile, modern technology has brought us the 45th President of the United States.

Great series, well worth a watch.

*That’s a lot of esses

Sinatra Sings the Blues

2435472Sinatra was very open about his influences as a singer. It’s well-known that as a young man he idolised Bing Crosby, but he also spoke of the inspiration he drew from the singing style of Billie Holiday.

It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.

Holiday and Sinatra were of an age, born in the same year, though she’d have been in the year above him at school, not that she spent much time in school. The year of their birth was before the release of the first “Jass” record and the first vocal blues record, but by the time the two of them started singing professionally, in the 1930s, jazz had become the first pop craze, and radio had spread the blues far and wide. As they were growing up, recording technology had progressed from singing into a horn as part of a mechanical recording system to an electrified system with microphones and loudspeakers. As you step forwards with technology, however, you sometimes lose something. The loud, raucous music of the 1920s had to be tamed and smoothed somewhat so that the new apparatus could cope with it.

Bing Crosby learned to sing into a ribbon microphone, one that would break if you sang to loudly into it. So his singing style was adapted accordingly, and became known as crooning.

Sinatra first saw Billie Holiday in the late 1930s, and at some point she offered him advice on how to sing the blues:

‘I told him certain notes at the end he could bend. … Bending those notes — that’s all I helped Frankie with.’

Holiday didn’t have much of a range, but her phrasing was a major influence on Sinatra whose voice was a more powerful and versatile instrument. I’m not a fan of how Sinatra sang in the 40s (still constrained, I think, by early microphones and still considered a mere adjunct to the real business of swing jazz, the orchestra and its leader); and I didn’t like what he started to do as his voice started to fade in his 60s, which was to (obviously) limit his dynamic range and lean into the gravel in his voice and to flatten his notes just a little too far.

But in his Capitol years, as previously discussed, and into his 50s with Reprise, his singing was spectacular. Of course, Holiday didn’t live into her 50s, a tragedy that hit Sinatra hard, but he was able to take full advantage of advances in recording technology: specifically, the Neumann U47 condenser microphone:

A major contributor to Frank Sinatra’s signature vocal sound when he moved from Columbia to Capitol was the U47 valve capacitor microphone that Neumann had begun manufacturing in 1949.

This mic was less fragile than the RCA 44 ribbon microphones that had been used up till then, which allowed for more attack from both brass sections and vocalists, and offered a brighter high end.

Anyway, this is all by way of an introduction to a short playlist of Sinatra singing the blues in the blues style. Of course, much of the Great American Songbook he drew from was based in the blues, and even a lot of the Broadway songs he chose had been influenced by the blues, but Sinatra’s torch songs and dance/swing numbers didn’t always sound terribly bluesy. I’ve selected a few, however, where you can hear the flattened blue notes that are characteristic of the blues. Sinatra did this often enough that it didn’t seem contrived but was a natural part of his style.

That’s Life (1966)

For me, this is the last great Sinatra track, before all the “My Way” and “New York, New York” nonsense that came after. While those latter two songs became show stoppers, they don’t appeal to me as they are both too on the nose to ring true. His kind of town, as any fule kno, is Chicago. Written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon in the early 60s, “That’s Life” is perhaps the Sinatra record that most sounds like it might come from 1966. That’s mainly because the band includes members of The Wrecking Crew, including Michel Rubini on Hammond, Glen Campbell on guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, and … it’s only fucking Darlene Love and the Blossoms on backing vocals.

I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ (1957)

This Gershwin number from Sinatra’s best Capitol Album A Swingin’ Affair comes from the controversial 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, which was first performed with an all African American cast, but having been written by white people was seen as a horrible kind of cultural ventriloquism. The song comes from Act 2, and is sung by the title character of Porgy. Taken out of its context, and in Sinatra’s hands, it loses its power to offend, and is simply a pop song based on the blues. Perhaps the most offensive thing about it is the spelling of ‘Nuttin’’ I absolutely love the instrumental interlude in this, as the band plays through the entire melody and really parps on that brass.

Stars Fell on Alabama (1957)

This 1934 song was composed by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish. The title phrase comes from a book and refers to the Leonid meteor shower’s appearance in 1833. The song has been covered by both Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby as well as the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day. It is certainly one of the songs that people mean when they refer to the Great American Songbook. Sinatra’s version (again, from A Swingin’ Affair) has bluesy overtones, with extended and slurred words, alternative readings of the line, “My heart beat (just) like a hammer” and (most mysteriously) substituted “fractured ‘Bama” for “fell on Alabama.” So the Leonid meteor shower is breaking Alabama, shattering and cracking it. These Sinatra improvisations were his gift to the song, and you should by now be starting to believe that A Swingin Affair is the album to buy.

One for My Baby (And One for the Road) (1958)

This is another one from a musical – The Sky’s the Limit, the film version of which starred Fred Astaire and Joan Leslie. The youthful Sinatra dreamed away in many an Astaire musical, and this song was written for Fred Astaire, whose performance of the song is inevitably accompanied by a dance number. The bartender character, Joe, appears in the sequence too. To watch this, complete with uptempo tap-dancing bit, and then listen to what Sinatra does with the song (as performed in another movie, Young at Heart, made in 1955 with Doris Day as the love interest) is to experience popular music whiplash. This song plays straight into Sinatra’s self-image as a depressed torch singer (on every other album, at least). The original studio recording is on Only The Lonely (with Sinatra made up as a Pierrot clown on the Commedia dell’arte themed cover!)

https://youtu.be/NpZp7awjSJ4

I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good (1957)

This is a Duke Ellington number (lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) from 1941. You’ll find versions of it by Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and so on. It’s a proper vocal blues, and Sinatra tackles it with a fabulous vocal, which you’ll find on what I’m going to call his bluest album, A Swingin’ Affair. But of course.

Nice Work if You Can Get It (1962)

This Gershwin tune is from 1937, and was again performed by Fred Astaire (with tap) in a movie: A Damsel in Distress, which also featured Joan Fontaine, who couldn’t dance. The film lost money. Sinatra recorded it at least twice, once on A Swingin’ Affair, and then again on Sinatra/Basie, an Historic Musical First, an album on which he radically reimagined several of his classic numbers, in new arrangements that explode the songs and make them new again. The Basie version is almost punky with its staccato rhythms and unusual phrasing which all but obliterates the original melody.

I Wanna Be Around (1964)

Another recording with the Basie orchestra, from the album It Might as Well be Swing.

This was written by Johnny Mercer in 1959, after receiving a message and a sample lyric from an Ohio woman who had been inspired by Sinatra’s two failed marriages to come up with the line, “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.” The song is from the perspective of a spurned first wife who watches her partner leave her for another, just as Frank had divorced Nancy to marry Ava Gardner, only to be dumped in his own turn.

I Can’t Stop Loving You (1964)

This is a country song, by Don Gibson, written in 1957 and recorded by Sinatra with the Basie Orchestra in 1964. Ray Charles was the first to blues it up, in 1962, and Sinatra followed his lead in ’64. By the end of the 60s, Elvis also started performing it live, and artists as diverse as Dolly Parton and Van Morrison have covered it. Sinatra’s version is performed with many blue notes, and he sings with such relish that you can’t help but feel it a shame that he only recorded three albums with Basie.

Learnin’ the Blues (1962)

Sinatra first recorded this as a successful single in 1955, but then again with Basie on their first collaboration. It was written by former beauty queen Vicki Silvers, and dropped into Sinatra’s lap when a singer hoping to get signed took his recording of the song to Sinatra’s publishing company. The Hefti arrangement on the Basie album has more polish than the original recording, which many critics prefer. But you can’t knock Basie and Sinatra together, and I like the call-and-response brass arrangement and the more laid-back tempo. Sinatra puts a little less into the vocal, stepping back to make it seem casual, but he also makes it bluesier, so it works better here.

Sentimental Journey (1961)

This song was Doris Day’s first hit record, in 1945. Its release coincided with the end of the second world war, and became the “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” hit of that summer. It has since been recorded in over 150 versions (including one by Ringo), and translated into French, German, and Japanese. Sinatra’s version is on his second-last release for Capitol, Come Swing with Me, with orchestra conducted by Billy May, though May only arranged three of the songs. This was Sinatra’s last swing record for the label that relaunched his career, and he was already recording for Reprise. Because of this, I’ve always felt this record had Contractural Obligation written all over it, with some of the arrangements feeling rushed, as if speeded up simply to get it done quicker. Sinatra was recording four songs a day for Capitol, and then four more for his upcoming Reprise release. Then again, it’s an experimental record, with a doubled brass section playing in stereo, and Sinatra is still pretty damn good, even when he’s phoning it in.

Blues in the Night (1958)

Another Arlen/Mercer track, this was written for a film of the same name, a film noir (!) musical that starred almost nobody I’ve heard of. One scene required a blues song to be sung in jail, and this is it. I always find it interesting when an immortal song features in a forgettable movie. I’m even given to understand that the version in the movie “murders” the song, which turned out to be strong enough to survive such treatment. Sinatra’s cover, on Only the Lonely, isn’t even considered one of the important ones, but, well, he sings the blues.

The Lonesome Road (1957)

Finally, it comes to this, another track from A Swingin’ Affair, which is the most venerable song in this playlist. Written in 1927 by Nathaniel Shilkret and Gene Austin, it first appeared in the mostly lost mostly silent film Show Boat in 1929, which Wikipedia insists was not based on the musical Show Boat but instead on the book upon which the musical was also based. Huh. Apparently, it was originally a silent film based on the book, but then panic set in when the musical was a hit, so they added 30 minutes of songs with some cast members. Which explains, maybe, the inclusion of this song instead of “Ol’ Man River”, which is certainly the most famous song from the musical. “The Lonesome Road” isn’t even from the musical, but I guess is a gospel-style song in a similar vein. Sinatra’s version is beautifully arranged, properly bluesy, and opens the second side of the album. Another classic from a forgotten film.