Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Just Say No: The November Musical Roundup...

Aye, the nights are fair drawing in, but some of the best music of the year has appeared in the last month to make things better. Lots of new stuff from the electronica of The Machine Room to the acoustic oddity of Bottle of Evil and the heads down rock of Underground. There's some dark discordance from She's Hit, a fantastic new album from Pumajaw and one of the albums of the year, indeed of the last few years, from one of my musical heroes; I'm talking about Mike Scott whose new Waterboys' album adapts the poetry of W.B Yeats and which really keeps me warm at night.

First up is a contender for track of the year from Blank Canvas, which has chiming guitars, driving drums and a lead singer who has more than a hint of Richard Jobson about him. Whether it makes my top five or not you can find out next month when all sorts of best of 2011 lists will appear, but so you can make up your own mind this is By The Fire:

The Machine Room remind me a little of early Simple Minds. Before you turn away, this is definitely a good thing (think I Travel, Love Song, Someone, Somewhere, In Summertime etc). This is the track Camino de Soda, and it builds beautifully to a glorious finish which makes you want to go straight back to the beginning to start the journey again:

Camino de Soda - The Machine Room by PauseRecord

Now for something dark and mellow. Bottle of Evil hail from Lanarkshire, as many great people do, and this is the most interesting take on the current vogue for the music known as folk that I have heard for some time. I would imagine that they like their rock 'post' and occasionally gaze at their shoes, a position I often adopt myself. They certainly make great music while doing so. From the EP Inside LookingOut, this is The Boatman:

Bottle of Evil - The Boatman by E.H.Studios

It's hard to beat a great bit of noise, and that's just what Underclass have produced with their latest single Beat Your Fist. What also helps is that it does what classic rock songs should do; hook you in, drag you along, then dump you after barely two and a half minutes. You barely have time to consider what just hit you. Enjoy:

Underclass - Beat Your Fist by Soundandvisionpr

Often people recommend or send things which are refreshingly different to what else is out there. That's the case with She's Hit. First time I listened I thought that this could fall apart at anytime, but they hold things together to make a lovely sound. There are influences such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Velvets and Nico and The Birthday Party, where I presume they get their name. This is Part One:

Out this month is DemonMeowMeow the new album from Pumajaw.  Since coming into contact with their music only recently I've been catching up, not only through listening to the album, but also through watching the often brilliant videos which you can find here pumajaw/video. Pumajaw understand completely who they are, what they want to do and how they want to do it; their sound, look, and attitude. I suggest you take a listen and see if you agree with me that they are one of the most interesting bands around. This is Outlands, which in my alternative universe is the theme to a James Bond film:

Mike Scott is one of my favourite people, and not simply for his music. The first three Waterboys albums changed not only my perception of what music could sound like, but also what it could deal with. It really was 'The Big Music'. Never a man to make the prudent or obvious choices (another reason to love him) he has reformed some Waterboys to make an album which takes WB Yeats poetry, treats it with absolute reverence, and once more makes magic. This is their version of Mad as the Mist and Snow, and if this does nothing for you then I don't think you and I can be friends anymore:

As mentioned above next month will be about 2011 round ups, including a Christmas podcast which will be an end of the year review, so if you have any suggestions of songs or bands you think I have overlooked please let me know.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

You Have Been Watching...Silent Scream

David Hayman has been a central figure in Scottish cinema over the last 40 years as an actor and director. Perhaps best known these days as DSCI Michael Walker in ITV's Trial and Retribution he has appeared in classic, and often cult, films such as Walker, Venus Peter, My Name is Joe and The Last Great Wilderness. For auld punks he will be remembered as Malcolm McLaren in Sid and Nancy, but his most iconic role was as Jimmy Boyle in 1979's A Sense of Freedom, one of the most brutal and raw films ever made in Scotland, with Hayman mesmeric in the central role.

He may be rightly lauded as an actor, but he is underrated as a director with at least three interesting films under his belt. These are The Hawk, a pitch black thriller starring Helen Mirren, The Near Room (see You Have Been Watching...The Near Room) and 1990's Silent Scream which saw Hayman revisiting Glasgow's Barlinnie Prison Special Unit, which once housed Jimmy Boyle, to tell the story of Larry Winters.

Considering this is a film the majority of which is set in a Glasgow prison, the mood and tone is unexpected. There is a magical realism that reminds me in parts of Terry Gilliam's Brazil and more recently Lynne Ramsay's films; or even, with the use of illustrations which become animations, Alan Parker's film version of Pink Floyd's The Wall. This surrealism is down to two key directorial decisions. The script is based not only on the life of Larry Winters, but also his writing and the accompanying nightmarish sketches which tell a tale of someone who suffered from psychotic episodes, and who relied on drugs, both prescription and non, to deal with life. 

Then there is the structure of the film, which has Winters reliving his life as he trips on pills smuggled into the prison. This turns out to be a long night of the soul and he is visited by the spectre of the Soho barman he murdered in 1963, an old lover (dressed at times as Alice), and a white horse which may or may not belong to William of Orange. These understandable hallucinations allow Hayman's direction to go into the realms of fantasy, and although the film was made in the 1990s, it captures the 1970s in fine detail, but particularly in attitude. Even in prison this is a time of experimentation, never more so than in the Special Unit, and Hayman clearly knows that of which he directs.

Iain Glen plays Larry Winters and it is a performance that is in turns subtle and startling. Recently Christian Bale was praised for emaciating himself for his role in The Machinist. Glen beats him to it, horrifically skeletal as he lies naked in his solitary cell. Glen is another underrated performer, and here he is perfectly cast as the troubled Winters; at times dangerous, at others innocent and childlike, often confused and dazed as he tries to come to terms with how life looks through his eyes. It is quite believable that he opts to try and tune out whenever possible.

It looks as if Hayman called upon plenty of favours when it came to the supporting cast, as some of Scotland's best actors, from screen and stage, are involved. A young Robert Carlyle may be the best known, but there are turns from Tom Watson, Sandy Morton, Caroline Paterson, Julie Graham, Johnathon Battersby and, as another screen version of Jimmy Boyle, Paul Samson. Hayman manages to get incredibly realistic performances from the cast which make the more magical flights of Winters' imagination all the more powerful.

I can't find the trailer online but here's a great clip of David Hayman being interviewed alongside producer Paddy Higson about the film:

Silent Scream is a powerful film that depicts real human tragedy. It never shies away from the fact that its central character was a convicted murderer, or that Winters was a complex and troubled man who was often holding onto his sanity by his fingernails, but it is more balanced than you will expect. For every abusive police officer or prison guard, there are reformers who, perhaps naively, trust their charges, and who are determined that prison should be about rehabilitation as well as punishment. There are flashbacks to Winters' childhood years, but these are not stereotypically grim, and he appears to have had a mostly happy time. Hayman gives no easy answers or trite excuses. You may read this review and want to avoid Silent Scream like the plague, but I urge you to think again. It is grim and violent in places, although nothing like A Sense of Freedom, but it is more about the, perhaps short and rare, moments of pleasure that can lift even the most apparently wretched spirit, and the redemptive power of artistic expression. It is a film that is, despite the tragic conclusion, surprisingly life affirming.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Seventh Heaven: It's the Scots Whay Hae! podcast...

In the seventh Scots Whay Hae! podcast Ali talks to Kirsty Neary about her latest novel Abstract/Concrete and editor Sam Best about Octavius, a new online literary magazine for students. There is lots of chat about writing methods (both dos and don'ts), the thorny question of genre fiction, the difficulty in getting published, the merits of The Lion King, and much much more.

Kirsty's novel (see left) is set in a dystopian Glasgow of 2024, and is spookily prescient about today's social/political situation. Octavius magazine is awaiting all submissions as long as you are currently a student in a Scottish university, college or school. We hear plenty from writers and critics who are established that it is easy to forget those who are at the beginning of their literary careers, whether writing, publishing or reviewing, and it is refreshing to listen to different points of view about Scottish writing and all things cultural.

You can read all about Kirsty's writing, and buy her books, by going to wildwolfpublishing.com.
For all the information about Octavius (left), including how to submit, then head along to octaviusmagazine.
You can listen and subscribe to the podcast on itunes at Scots Whay Hae! podcast at iTunes, or you may prefer RSS; Scots Whay Hae! podcast on RSS

In the next podcast we hope to have an interview with one of Scotland's best known and regarded writers. I'm not being enigmatic, just wary of letting you down, and a bit of mystery is always a good thing. To find out who it is return to these pages in a couple of weeks time. Until then we hope you enjoy No 7.

Congratulations to Louise Anne Geddes who wins a copy of Alasdair Gray's Lanark by correctly answering the question posed in the last podcast blog; in Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Sandy's surname is indeed Stranger. 

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Not The Face: The Little Kicks Are On The Road...

There does seem to be something stirring in the North, and one of the best bands to come out of a growing Aberdeen scene are The Little Kicks. They are currently on tour promoting their album The Little Kicks which is released on 28/11/11. They have already been to Sneaky Pete's in Edinburgh but here are the rest of their Scottish dates:


I hear influences such as Love, The Beatles, Teenage Fanclub, in fact if you like classic pop with hooks and melodies then you are going to approve. Catch them if you can as they are almost certain to be playing less intimate venues in the future and you can't beat seeing the whites of a bands eyes. For a taste of what to expect here's one of those album trailers which seem to be popular these days followed by a clip of them playing live at Aberdeen's legendary Lemon Tree:

To learn more about The Little Kicks go to The Little Kicks where there are lots of video clips and downloadable tunes. You want more right now? Of course you do. Here's the single Call of Youth, which is one of my favourite songs of the year, and which is free to download at their website:

Monday, 14 November 2011

You Have Been Watching...Mary of Scotland

From seeing her opposite Cary Grant in Holiday at an early age I have always been a little bit in love with Katherine Hepburn, so when I discovered that one of her earliest films was Mary of Scotland, where she plays Mary Queen of Scots, I knew I had to get a copy.

Made in 1936, the film is a fairly historically accurate telling of Mary's return from France to claim her rightful place on the throne of Scotland, becoming a threat to her cousin Elizabeth's reign in England. Her life becomes a battle between heart and head as she puts aside her love for the Earl of Bothwell, played here by Frederic March as a kilted lover and fighter, to marry the politically expedient choice of Lord Darnley, who is a foppish womanising alcoholic, but who has a claim to the throne of England and brings the possibility of uniting the thrones.

This love triangle is at the heart of the film, but the most important relationship is the one between the two Queens. Hepburn plays Mary as a stoic, strong and principled woman who is determined to overcome sexism and sectarianism to try and unite the country and keep the power hungry Lords in check. Elizabeth is played by Florence Eldridge, and she is portrayed as scheming, devious and ruthless, willing to stop at nothing to protect her crown. For those who believe that English monarchs get a raw deal from Hollywood (Patrick McGoohan as Edward Longshanks in Braveheart readily springs to mind) this will do nothing to persuade them that there is not a bias. Superficially there is a difference too as Liz is constantly needing reassurance about her looks whereas Mary looks like Katherine Hepburn, and knows it.

Other key characters include Donald Crisp's Lord Huntly,  Ian Keith as Mary's brother Moray and Gavin Muir as Leicester, all of whom grasp their characters with gusto. Moroni Olsen plays reformer, and anti all things Roman, John Knox in a terrific cameo. But the most interesting piece of casting for me is that of John Carradine, father of David and Keith, as the Queen's Italian consort David Rizzio. Carradine became a genuine Hollywood cult legend going on to appear in many genre movies, but here he exemplifies another country, one of art, literature, music and Catholicism. The Lords are suspicious of him and his influence on Mary and through him we see the prejudices of the time and place played out.

Here's the trailer:

Mary of Scotland was critically well received but was a commercial flop. Hepburn (left as Mary) had a few films in her early career which underwhelmed at the box office and this led to her being thought of as 'box-office poison', a label she carried until the huge success of The Philadelphia Story in 1940 before going on to become legend. Frederic March, who is probably best known for playing both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the 1931 version of Stevenson's tale, went on to make many more movies, including one of my favourites, 1960's Inherit the Wind opposite Spencer Tracy and Gene Kelly. If you are a sucker for courtroom dramas then you should seek it out.  

If you are a fan of Hollywood's Golden Age of the 1930s and 40s then Mary of Scotland has lots to interest you. The sets are impressive and detailed, the costumes are beautiful as well as being less than subtle signifiers as to who to cheer for and who to boo. The direction is assured, which is no surprise as it was directed by John Ford who would go on to work on The Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers, The Quiet Man and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Mary of Scotland is not Ford, or Hepburn, at their best but for film historians, or simply historians, this is a film which should be seen.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Have You Ever Had it Blue?: A Review of The Blue Book...

A new A.L Kennedy novel is always cause for celebration, and her latest The Blue Book is worthy of a raised glass or two. It again proves that there are few writers who can match her playfully perverse way with plot and prose, employing a literary slight of hand that takes readers to unexpected places. This is never more obvious than with The Blue Book.

Before you even read page one you are made aware that there is something intriguing in store. The hardback is a beautiful blue with gold lettering and the picture of an upturned palm. It is reminiscent of a religious or cultural text (think King James, Mao or Qadaffi), or an old book of spells, which suggests that the reader is in for some sort of instruction.

The novel is a love story, but what unfolds is a tale which is an unconventional exegesis on human nature and which attempts to answer 1980's electro-pop pixie Howard Jones' question; 'what is love anyway?'. The troubled lovers are Elizabeth (also known as Beth), and Arthur whose relationship is played out in a mixture of flashbacks and the present day. This has the effect of throwing the reader off track as the nature of their strong bond has to be deciphered and then understood. Few writers play with their readership as Kennedy does and it is typical that she would set her story in the shadowy world of psychics (which explains an acknowledgment to Derren Brown).

Arthur teaches Beth how to 'read' people and they go on to work together exploiting this ability using various codes and 'tells', particularly preying on those who are at their most vulnerable. The problem is that once this particular Pandora's Box has been opened there is no way back, and they use their knowledge to look for the same signifiers in themselves which, in a karmic twist, ruins any chance they have of ever trusting each other, or anyone. By living lives which thrive by dealing in other people's misery they appear to have destroyed any chance not only of having a happy life together, but also apart. Can't live with, can't live without.

There are other strong supporting characters, particularly Derek, Beth's hapless and cuckolded boyfriend, and the friendly couple Francis and Bunny, but this is a tale of Arthur and Beth, and through them Kennedy tackles notions of romantic ideals. Is love anything more than the manipulation, deliberate or otherwise, of individuals needs and desires? Are we decieved by others or simply deceiving ourselves? As usual Kennedy manages to walk a fine line between scepticism and hope, an act which is difficult to pull off without appearing non committal, especially when dealing with something as abstract as love, but by giving no easy answers she ultimately lets the reader decide for themselves .

Kennedy uses her own tricks and illusions in the novel. The numerical codes which Arthur teaches Beth are replicated in some of the page numbers which at times appear randomly out of sync (although I'm sure there is nothing random in any of Kennedy's fiction). You can't escape the feeling that she is manipulating her readers as Arthur and Beth do their audiences. While there is certainly no delusion that what the two undertake is deception on a despicable scale, using the hurt and hope of the most vulnerable to make their living, there is a brief nod to the idea that perhaps they are providing a service which gives some people closure after personal loss. However, this is only referenced when Arthur inparticular seeks to justify his life and relieve the guilt. As the novel reaches a conclusion (of sorts) perspective and sympathies are pulled all over the place and point of view and storytelling themselves are explored. Kennedy is not content simply to tell a story but to make us question just how it is told.

The Blue Book sees Kennedy put together a run of three novels, the others being Paradise and Day, which are remarkable in their quality and scope. It may be a bold claim but I love reading her more than almost any other living writer, with the only downside being that she does make me want to abandon all thoughts of writing myself in bouts of post novel inadequacy (this has happened after all of the aforementioned novels). But then I realise that the world doesn't need another A.L Kennedy, we should just praise the heavens that we have the one we do.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Wrapped Up in Books: The 6th Scots Whay Hae! Podcast...

Out today is the sixth Scots Whay Hae! podcast which sees Ronnie Young join Chris Ward and Ali Braidwood (see their cheeky faces to the left) to try and sort out the best five Scottish novels of all time. There are tears, tantrums and tissues, mainly down to triple man flu, as they agree, then disagree, before agreeing to disagree over the final five.

Listen to three grown men try to avoid talking over each other, and marvel at how Scots Whay Hae! is falsely accused (or are they) of bullying their guest into accepting a final conclusion. If you don't agree with the outcome then please let us know. If there is enough dissent then we may even have a follow up podcast to consider your alternatives.

In the meantime you can win a copy of Alasdair Gray's Lanark by answering the following question:
                  'In Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie what is Sandy's surname?'
Email your answers to scotswhayhae@gmail.com and the winning name will be the first one pulled from my auld bunnit.

You can subscribe to the podcast on itunes by going to Scots Whay Hae! at iTunes or by RSS here Scots Whay Hae! on RSS

The next podcast will be available in around two weeks time and will see Ali joined by resident film expert Kirsty Neary with her writer's hat on talking about her latest novel Abstract/Concrete. Also, writer/editor Sam Best will explain all about the new literary magazine for students which is known as Octavius. If you are interested in submitting, or know someone who should, then you can learn more at octaviusmagazine.

Future podcasts are shaping up to be tremendously exciting with some big name guests, and some guests with big names. You can decide who is which.

Friday, 4 November 2011

You Have Been Watching...Perfect Sense

What I have discovered when talking to people about Scottish film directors is that few seem to split opinion as David Mackenzie does. Usually I can see other points of view even if I don't agree with them, but when I look at just a selection of Mackenzie's body of work; The Last Great Wilderness, Young Adam, Hallam Foe and now Perfect Sense, it seems unarguable that this is one of the most visually interesting, and risky, directors around. There are flaws in his films, often because he takes those risks, but surely these are out weighed by the importance of the ideas and issues that he is asking his audiences to deal with.

Perhaps Perfect Sense, his latest film, shows this better than any of his previous work. There are scenes which are excessive and which, if viewed in isolation, will seem ludicrous, but Mackenzie is proposing an excessive scenario. Global panic begins as everyone feels uncontrollable and inexplicable grief before they start to lose their senses one by one, with the loss of smell being just the beginning.

The central story in Perfect Sense is the love affair that unfolds between Ewan McGregor's Michael and Eva Green's Susan as chaos erupts all around. There is a sense (excuse me) that the need for love becomes heightened as the senses begin to fail, that strong bonds need to be formed before it is too late. The love affair could be viewed as unromantic for those reasons, that there is a need rather than a deep desire. As the world returns to nature, or loses its nature, the most primal needs come to the fore. Just as humanity is finding a way to survive these sensual losses, so Michael and Eva discover that each set back only makes them stronger. Through their relationship we are each being asked to consider how we would react in such circumstances, something which the best science fiction always demands.

The two leads are excellent. It is made clear from the beginning that  Michael and Susan are not easy people to like. He unceremoniously kicks a conquest out of bed claiming that he 'can't sleep if someone else is in the bed', while she has just had her heart broken and believes she will never find anyone again, setting her stall against all men. Her initial reluctance to engage with this cocky womaniser is completely understandable, but what is of interest is that they break down any initial pretence to who they are to lay themselves bare to each other, eventually labelling themselves 'Mr and Mrs Arsehole'. The scenes where they break down or lose control are often wild, but this is not a film that demands realism, this is emotion that comes from somewhere other than the heart, more likely in the form of something altering the brain, and as such no one can know how this would unfold. Here's the trailer:

The support cast is well chosen if lightly used. Connie Nielsen is a strong, reliable presence as Susan's sister, Denis Lawson (who I consider the best actor in his family) is Michael's boss struggling to keep his restaurant open as people's requirements change. There is the 'other' Ewan, Mr Bremner, who is on top form in a fairly undemanding role, and there is something appealing seeing Renton and Spud together on screen again, and also Mackenzie's actor brother Alistair who plays one of Susan's fellow scientists and, at the risk of repeating myself, he is an underrated screen presence who should be better known. Here is a film of the cast and director discussing Perfect Sense:

I can agree that David Mackenzie is an inconsistent film maker, but this is often down to the quality of the material he is asked to deal with. Remember that this is someone who wants to make films. You cannot imagine that he would wait 9 years between releases as Lynne Ramsay did between Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin (see you-have-been-watchingwe-need-to-talk). That is not to have a pop at Ramsay, or other film makers such as Terence Malick or Peter Mullan who, admirably, only want to make films which mean something intensely personal to them. Mackenzie is often an auteur for hire, similar to Steven Soderbergh, and will make the best, and he does, of fairly underwhelming scripts, but even when he is dealing with the more frothy end of things, as in the T in the Park set You Instead (see you-have-been-watching...you instead) he is always interesting, with a eye for the unusual and a visual flair which is rare. When he gets to experiment, as he does in Young Adam, Hallam Foe and Perfect Sense, then there are few other directors who make movies which are as entertaining even as they confront the audience with uncomfortable propositions. He is someone who does not shy away from confronting the big ideas and we need film makers who will engage with difficult and thought provoking material.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

808 State: The Best Music from October...

It's time for the musical roundup for October, and it has been an autumnal belter. Music that has come my way by hook and crook includes the new album Honestly, This World from The Moth and the Mirror, the solo debut from ex De Rosa frontman Martin John Henry The Other Half of Everything and the excellently named Edinburgh School for the Deaf with their album New Youth Bible and there are samples of these albums below. There's also tracks from The Bird and the Monkey, and solo material from everyone's favourite Belle and Seb (surely); it's only Stevie Jackson.

First off are The Moth and the Mirror who have been described elsewhere as an indie supergroup, which seems to me to be a bit of a contradiction in terms. You can find all about them by going to Olive Grove Records and make your own mind up. Yes there are well kent faces, and voices involved, but all I really care about is that they can do this. This is a live version of Honestly, This World:

Next are Edinburgh School for the Deaf and they make a lovely noise. Imagine Phil Spector's Wall of Sound played through the Reid brothers equipment at slightly the wrong speed and you'll begin to get the idea. This, in case you're in any doubt, is a very good thing. Here they are with Memories of Wounds:

The Bird and the Monkey got in touch and said, 'hello, we think you'll like us', and they were right. I'm always a sucker for interesting videos and they have plenty to accompany their songs which are a little psychedelic and a little electronic with something of the night about them. You can find a further selection by going to thebirdandthemonkey. For fellow spectacle fetishists the following clip is a delight. This is the track they call Moon Moth:

I saw Martin John Henry support The Seventeenth Century last year, a night where he showcased his new songs. Since then his album The Other Half of Everything has been the one I have been waiting for. Now it's here and it does not disappoint. If you want to know what the man himself thinks about the tracks then have a look at this excellent interview with Peenko (see Peenko/Martin John Henry). Henry has a way with melody and lyrical twists which places him above many others who try this sort of thing. As a taster here is the first single Ribbon on a Bough:

Finally for the October selection here is a solo single from Stevie Jackson, taken from his brilliantly named album I Can't Get No Stevie Jackson. You can read all about it, including all his forthcoming tour dates, by going to steviejackson. This is a terrific video for Feel the Morning, and it's all you would expect, and just a little more:

I hope that gives you something to mull over on those cold november nights. Make mine a Horlicks.