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Archive for July, 2011

With its two theatre tents and ballet headliners, the overwhelming impression the Latitude Festival leaves is of an arts festival smuggled under the wire of a rock event. This impression is only hardened on the Saturday afternoon by the realisation that my first incident of sweaty-palmed excitement is caused not by the latest pop sensation but by the appearance of Alan Hollinghurst in the Literature Arena.

This is not to say, of course, that there are no musical thrills to be had at Latitude – just that you have to look rather harder to locate them.

The first of these turns out to be Caribou on a glorious Friday afternoon. The band of travelling Canadians have been touting the same brand of woozy disco electronics since the release of Swim last year but producer Dan Snaith’s way with a sun-bobbled melody and the band’s excellent use of percussion win out.

The crowd – young, beery and very tall indeed – love them but I can’t help feeling Caribou could be better served by a proper diva-style singer belting it out rather than Snaith’s little boy lost vocal style, which doesn’t sit well astride such sunny psychedelic disco. Hot Chip – much as I like them – have a lot to answer for.

A trip to the Sunrise Arena, hidden in the Suffolk woods, follows for Glasser, an artist who seems to attract an inordinate amount of praise for what is, essentially, a Bjork copycat act with none of the Icelandic’s explosive charm. On these terms, Glasser doesn’t disappoint.  But these terms hardly constitute fulsome praise and Glasser feels so stuck in the early 2000s you almost want to warn her about 9/11.

We wander, picking our way around an art installation, but our journey is cut short by the sound of some beautifully chaotic saxophone honking.

“Looks like we’ve found the free jazz stage,” I joke, only to realise that we have, in fact, actually found the free jazz stage, or as near as darn it courtesy of the Radio 3 Late Junction pocket arena, where the Shabaka Hutchings Trio are giving it some deconstructed wellie to an enthusiastic crowd. Suffice to say, all the passion and power Glasser is lacking is to be found here in great, glorious spades.

Eschewing The National – a band who leave me with the nagging feeling I’ll like them some day – and the baffling Bombay Bicycle Club, the last act of the night is Cat’s Eyes, who have brought along a choir for the occasion. Sound problems sadly render the extra singers inaudible – at least for the first few songs – and it looks like things may go all awry. Cue much rolling of eyes from co-singer Faris Badwan.

But there is something quite stirring about the Cat’s Eyes combo of Rachel Zeffira’s swooning vocals and the band’s love of dirty garage rock and Sixties girl groups – the dirt and the drama, if you will – and the band’s way with a whipsmart pop tune pulls things round into a glorious pop totality that seems to suit the dark woods as well as an East London bear pit.

Saturday is headlined by the rain. Well, not really, it’s Paolo Nutini. But nothing can quite match the impact of the drilling rain pounding on the tent tops, testing to its limit the oft-repeated claim that the Latitude site doesn’t get muddy. It does get muddy, incidentally, just not that much thanks to the very sandy soil.

The rain means that anyone playing under cover is very welcome indeed. But even this cannot account for the heroic reception that greets Adam Ant (or rather Adam Ant and the, ahem, Good The Mad and the Lovely Posse) as they bring their tribal-ic two drum kit pop sounds to The Word Arena.

The hits are there in their full glory and – while the new material feels rather paint by number rock and roll revival – you can hardly begrudge a band that bring at least two era-defining pop songs (Prince Charming and Stand And Deliver) to a rainy Saturday afternoon in Suffolk.

Typically arty and erratic, though, the biggest musical thrill of the day is to be found not on any of the four devoted musical arenas but rather in the film tent where, almost unannounced, a clutch of female solo artists are providing specially commissioned live scores to silent films.

First – and best to my mind – is Tara Busch’s performance alongside Lois Weber’s 1913 thriller Suspense, which sees the young American use everything from creeping electronics to a glorious operatic voice to offset the sinister goings on.

More unsettling – if rather less traditionally musical – is Michachu’s use of an old cassette player to adorn Lotte Reiniger’s animated Hansel and Gretel with a variety of sinister drones and varispeed hums.

Seaming follows with her score to Maya Derren’s Meshes of the Afternoon before Imogen Heap (a Grammy Award winner, no less) premieres her a cappella score for Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman, considered to be the first ever surrealist film.

Heap, an artist I respect rather more than enjoy, has produced an expansive piece that makes full use of the possibilities of the human body for sound – from whooping whistles to chattering chest percussion – but the overall effect falls rather flat.

The problem, I suspect, is not entirely Heap’s, who has produced an intriguing score that sits well with the pre-WW2 surrealia.  Instead, it is down to the film itself which, though doubtlessly a vital cog in cinematic history, is to my mind a little dull and, at close to 30 minutes, over-long.

As the film drags, it starts to feel as if the musical ideas are running out so we leave for the Waterfront Stage where East Anglians are almost rioting over viewpoints for the English National Ballet.

Reading and Leeds, I repeat, this is not.

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(From 2005)

Isolated not just in name, German electronic wizard Isolée, inhabits a world far from the trodden path.

Spurning the dull inanity of most modern electronic music, Isolée’s tunes send strange debris of electric melody spiralling off into the ether, powered by oddly fizzing off-centred beats, in a way unlikely ever to endear him to Judge Jules or David Guetta. Isolated for sure…

But then aren’t we all a bit isolated these days? “I liked the word and it has a meaning – in our society everybody has a feeling with that,” Isolée, known to his mother as Rajko Muller, explains, in a fruity German accent. “Also Isolée is different to me the person. I like the confusion.”

Confusion he has in spades. After a debut album, 2000’s Rest, of stunning avant garde electrics, all bendy lines and chrystalline melodies, that floored the leftfield dance community and even produced one of the freakiest near hits of living memory in the peerless Beau Mot Plage, he’s back, five years later, with Wearemonster, and he’s gone disco.

Well, kind of. “I didn’t really realise it was more disco,” he says, after what feels like a century of deep thought. “I wasn’t really conscious about it.”

What this means is that it sounds like Muller has added a new world of live instrumentation – from warm, disco drums to twangy guitars and looming strings – to his meandering synth-lined path.

Except, naturally, he hasn’t. “There’s no live instrumentation,” he says, amused, conceivably. “But there was the intention to make it sound like this. It’s interesting to sound less computer-like – a more organic sound.”

As you may be beginning to understand, little is simple in the world of Isolée. Take the name for example. It means “isolated” sure, but has an extra “e” on the end.

Why, you may ask? Well, if you were British it would probably indicate a preference for drugs, in French it means feminine. And for Rajko, “…” which means either he doesn’t want to say or he just liked the look.

Well more power to him. The likelihood of  Isolée making a brash, headline-grabbing-style announcement is about as small as him making a brash, headline-grabbing-style record and if that means we never know what he eats for breakfast or his thoughts on celebrity culture then amen to that.

Download Isolée’s Pyjama remix of Osborne’s Daylight here

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Morrissey might not have picked the bill for the middle day of the Hop farm festival but, frankly, he might as well have done: all four acts that preceded him are personal favourites, while recent support act Viva Brother propped up the bill.

Perhaps it was this or simply the Kent sunshine but Morrissey proved on fine form. “How do you follow the Stooges?” he asked on taking the stage.

The answer, at least for the fervent crowd that had made its way down to Hop Farm, was to kick off with a Smiths song (I Want The One I Can’t Have) pick up with one of his best-loved solo songs (You’re the One For Me, Fatty) and then return to The Smiths (Shoplifters Of The World Unite) via latter period hit You Have Killed Me.

It was a brilliant way to start proceedings and, while the next 60 minutes couldn’t quite keep up with the pace, they nevertheless suggested a renewed vigour in Morrissey that has sometimes seemed lacking in recent years, with a run of concert cancellations, poor health and disappointing chart results.

Hop Farm might not have been sold out – at least not for the Saturday that Morrissey is headlining – but the singer remained a formidable live draw, appearing second on the bill to U2 at Glastonbury.

He was helped on this occasion by the fact that this initially looked like being the closest the singer was doing to a London gig this summer (two dates in the capital have since been announced) but there is no doubting the enthusiasm of the crowd, many of whom were still in nappies when he recorded 1992 album Your Arsenal, let alone singing with The Smiths.

It helps too that his band, the object of frequent criticism from fans, sound in good form. There’s still remains some tendency to crank out the guitars and rock out – versions of This Charming Man and Meat Is Murder suffer slightly from this – but they prove on songs such as Alma Matters that they can play with a great deal of sympathy. And Morrissey’s voice remains flawless throughout.

The former Smiths singer is, famously, without a record deal – an odd situation for any festival headliner – following stints on three of the four majors and Sanctuary.

At this gig he plays two new songs – rocker The Kid’s A Looker and the more sedate Action Is My Middle Name – which show his skill as a melodicist and lyric writer remain undimmed. They are greeted with verve and even a sing-along. Logic would dictate a new deal can’t be far away but things are rarely simple in Morrissey’s world.

To hear these new songs properly recorded would be a delight. But, perversely, Morrissey often seems at his best when faced with adversity – consider, for example, his UK tour in the early part of the century when he was previously label-less – and his excellent headline set almost makes you want the situation to continue.

As for Hop Farm, now in its fourth year, it can sometimes seem slightly confused. The line up generally follows the rule of new acts in the early part of the day followed by legends at night. But you wonder how many people in the world, let alone Kent, are dedicated fans of The Eagles, Morrissey and Prince, the three headliners in 2011.

But the appearance of the latter, in particular, for what was his only UK show of 2011 shows that promoter Vince Power has lost none of his skill with a contact book. And whoever organised a Saturday line up of Magazine, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and the Stooges and Morrissey surely deserves a pay rise.

Morrissey set list:

I Want The One I Can’t Have / You’re The One For Me, Fatty / You Have Killed Me / Shoplifters Of The World Unite / Ouija Board, Ouija Board / There Is A Light That Never Goes Out / The Kid’s A Looker / Everyday Is Like Sunday / Action Is My Middle Name / Meat is Murder / Satellite Of Love / I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris / Speedway / Alma Matters / Irish Blood, English Heart / First Of The Gang To Die / This Charming Man / Panic

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When the Balanescu Quartet tour their latest album, the gorgeous Maria T, a ghost will be onstage. The album is a homage to one of Alexander Balanescu’s earliest musical influences, iconic Romanian folk-singer Maria Tanase, and Balanescu is hoping the multimedia live event will conjure her spirit.

Balanescu sees the album as an emotional re-connection to Romania – the country in which he was born in 1950 and fled in 1969.  In 1992 he toured Romania with his quartet, in support of Possessed, an album of Kraftwerk covers. The visit touched him emotionally and he left with the desire to express through his music the emotional connection to a country he had been forced to abandon as a teenager.

The album that followed in 1994, Luminitza (“small light” in Romanian) was an exquisite balance of folk, classical and the avant-garde, taking Eastern European folk music as inspiration for new musical material.

Although a decade later, Maria T is a follow up of sorts. Balanescu explains: “On this particular project I took the songs of Maria Tanase as a basis for new compositions. My intention was not to make transcriptions or arrangements of the ethnic material, but through my own particular musical perspective, with its classical, jazz, electronic and generally very eclectic influences, to develop a new personal language.”

The album is a towering success, swaying elegantly from the “Romanian reggae” (Alexander’s description) / Kraftwerk folk (mine) of opener Joc Pe Loc to the devastating, melancholic waltz of Lume, Lume, to the downright jaunty drinking song Vinul, oozing lush melody as it goes.

The making of the album, which Balanescu considers “absolutely” his most personal, was obviously a poignant time for him. “It was a kind of meeting between my quartet and her band: classical musicians, playing along with a gypsy’s band, meeting over the generations with the help of a computer. It was fantastic,” he says, in a voice still dripping with deliciously thick Romanian vowels. And it’s an emotional listen, too, visceral even. “Romanian folk music is very fatalistic,” Balanescu explains. “It’s very dark and yet the music has a kind of sweetness. It’s a kind of liberation.”

This fatalistic touch reflects the spirit of Tanase, often referred to as the Romanian Edith Piaf. She led an intense, bohemian life, cut tragically short at the age of 50, when she died of lung cancer. By that time she had already distinguished herself as a theatre and film actress, an operetta singer, a music hall star but principally as a folk singer.

Balanescu’s career, which has seen him work with everyone from The Pet Shop Boys (My October Symphony, a career highlight for Tennant and Lowe) to the Arditti Quartet, is far from what might be expected of a modern classical violinist. Balanescu expresses his admiration for the “grey areas” in music, which break the barriers between musical styles. Nevertheless, he is aware of the horrors into which it is easy to fall. “Some times cross over can be very horrible,” he says, politely. “When an artist isn’t aware of the elements, using it instead of enhancing it.”

Not that there is any worry of that with Maria T. In the end, despite the heart breaking melodies, brilliant arrangements and stunning playing, the album’s greatest achievement may be the way it manages to combine a very clever mix of modern music techniques, with the raw emotional force of Tanase’s beloved folk music.

And, as befits a tribute to a deceased singer, it’s deathly haunting.

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