Portland, Oregon-based Grouper (real name Liz Harris) can perhaps most easily be classified under the dream-pop label. Comparisons to the Cocteau Twins have been drawn, and while there is an element of truth in the analogy, it’s possible to overstress it – there is a hazy, blurry dreaminess to Harris’ music that sets them apart from the Cocteau Twins’ clearly defined, chiming melodies.

There are delicately beautiful, fragile melodies and fragments of gentle, pastoral folk here – Harris’ reverb-laden, whispered vocals and gently strummed acoustic guitar occasionally, as on “Heavy Water/I’d Rather be Sleeping” and “Invisible”, rise to the surface. More often, however, they are wrapped in a druggy, impressionistic haze of aural fog – this is music that washes over you in swirling, echoing waves of melodically ambient sound, sleepily soothing yet richly suggestive of deeper forces. The astonishing “Tidal Wave”, for instance, creates a sonic space that is intimate yet vast, suggestive of cold, desolate, windswept places as much as the private whisperings of a lover or a conscience.

This is powerfully atmospheric, richly evocative and hauntingly beautiful music. It feels like slowly waking up into tentative consciousness from a pleasantly deep, dream-rich sleep, and finding yourself, only half-awake, in an ancient forest, whispered to just beneath conscious hearing by a presence that could be benevolent forest sprites or something bigger and more disturbing. And if it’s more something that will slowly dawn on you over repeated listen than something that will grab you immediately, there is nonetheless an intense, hypnotic power to this album that makes it difficult to stop listening to it once it finally clicks.

Grouper on MySpace


There’s a lot to be said for narrative complexity, but sometimes the most effective tales are the simplest. The story at the heart of Grave of the Fireflies is very simple: in a Japan ravaged by World War II, two young children, orphaned by the war, attempt to fend for themselves, and slowly starve to death. We are told what the outcome is to be from the film’s first frames, so there is never any tension or hope that things might just work out, only a slow and painful grind through desperate suffering and towards inevitable death.

Grave of the Fireflies has no great complexity of message or thematic development. What it does pack is a powerful gut-instinct emotional punch; the two children, older brother Seita and younger sister Setsuko, are drawn so believably and endearingly in every minute detail of their daily routine that it is impossible not to feel devastated as they gradually succumb to disease, malnutrition, and the unwillingness of those around them to share meagre resources. Its tale is told with an unmerciful directness – neither the children nor the audience, for instance, are spared the sight of their mother’s horribly disfigured, maggot-infested corpse – but the omnipresence of death is mitigated by a poetically melancholy, twilight beauty occasionally shining through the gloom.

The film was originally released as a double-bill with Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro, and it’s difficult to imagine a more perfect pair-up. In Grave‘s more peaceful moments, it echoes the whimsy and innocent, awed child’s-eye view of the world that characterizes Miyazaki’s equally brilliant film – as, for instance, in the scenes with the fireflies that give the film its title. Like Totoro, the plot is barely present, serving only as a framework on which to hang the flow, rhythm and little moments in the daily life of its sibling protagonists. The difference, of course, is that while the rapturous wonder and cartwheeling joy of childhood is allowed to flower in Totoro, in Grave it is surrounded by, cut down and eventually consumed by decay and death. In one of the siblings’ last joyful moments – a trip down to the beach – their playful energy and echoing laugther are undercut when we catch our first glimpse of the sores on Setsuko’s back; moments later, their excursion is cut short, first by the discovery of a corpse washed up on the beach, and secondly by an air raid siren. Totoro and Grave represent two sides of the same coin – both display an uncommonly keen understanding and sensitivity to the nuances of childhood experience, but while one is intent on exploring its limitless possibilities, the other focuses on the ways in which these possibilities are wiped out.

Grave of the Fireflies, then, is not an easy film to watch, but then an easy watch would have been a betrayal of its theme. It stands as one of the most powerful war films (and one of the best films about children) ever made and one of the masterpieces of the anime genre, and deserves to be more widely seen.

listen to: silje nes

August 25, 2008

The Scandinavian folk scene has produced some of the most interesting music of the past few years. Artists like Lau Nau and Islaja have released hypnotically beautiful, if sometimes challenging, music that is unlike anything else I can name. Miles away from the unadorned voice-and-guitar songcraft of most traditional folk singer-songwriters (not that there’s anything wrong with that), these songs display complex, often assonant arrangements and unorthodox instrumentation that take a while to get used to, but that are well worth the effort.

Norwegian artist Silje Nes, who grew up in the town of Leikanger in Sognefjord, and now makes music in Bergen, is one of the newer additions to the scene, and one of the most interesting and rewarding. Her debut album, Ames Room, was released by Fat Cat earlier this year, and it’s a thing of immense beauty and intricacy. Always at the forefront is her gentle voice – at times coming close to a less mischievous, more ethereal Bjork, at others washing away in harmonic whispers. A muted, suggestively distant guitar plays a prominent role in most of her songs, but what is most interesting is what is happening around these folk staples.

Nes recorded the album herself, using a considerable number of instruments, including some she constructed herself, to create dense, layered arrangements. The result is that in the album’s aural universe, Nes is constantly surrounded by what sounds like a shambolic orchestra of rickety clockwork toys, all clicks, whirrs, hums, plinkety-plonk keyboard sounds and off-kilter percussion. In places Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits is distantly recalled, though the arrangements here are more fragile, threatening to fall apart at any moment but always just hanging together.

These arrangements may be complex and multi-layered, but the end result is not one of epic scope, but of a rich intimacy – each sound feels hand-made and lovingly worked on, making each song feel unique. There is a lot of variety here – “Drown”, an achingly gorgeous piece built around just-barely-plucked guitar notes and Nes’ beautifully multi-tracked voice repeating the enigmatic line “We’ll bring the water to the sea once more”, perhaps adheres closest to folk conventions, though the emphasis on its echoing ambience sets it apart. Other songs, like “Recurring Dream” and “Searching, White”, with their driving percussion and electronic basslines, actually develop nod-along grooves, while “Dizzy Street” almost sounds like a pop song. Elsewhere, as on “Shapes Electric” and closer “No Birds Can”, the emphasis is on the intricate soundscapes Nes conjures up rather than on songcraft. These disparate strands to make Ames Room a hugely promising debut, and one of the best albums of the year to date.

Silje Nes on MySpace

It’s been a while since we’ve had a decent band visiting our shores – the enjoyable gig by The Violets was back in March, and before that I have to go back to the excellent show by The Burning Leaves and Pete Molinari almost a full year back. So yesterday’s performance by Vanessa and the O’s was something to look forward to.

Positives first: the Old University Building courtyard proved to be an excellent live venue, with great acoustics and loads of character and atmosphere. The projection of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera as a background to the performances was an inspired touch and worked well, contributing to an engaging visual setting for the show.

The Beangrowers were as listenable and endearing as ever. This was the first time I’d heard material from their latest album played live, and new songs like “Quaint Affair” and “Untitled Forever” demonstrate a band that continues to grow in songwriting maturity and craft. The more relaxed ambience of a sit-down gig suited them well and allowed the songcraft to shine through more than the bouncy energy that’s generally at the forefront during their shows.

After a short break, it was time for the headliners of the evening to take to the stage. I have to admit to having something of a personal aversion to the breathy, nonchalant-but-oh-so-sexy and usually French sort of singing style Vanessa employs – it tends to come across, at least to me, as shallow, affected, pretentious , utterly fake and highly irritating. So inevitably this was a bit of a stumbling-block for me when listening to Vanessa and the O’s, especially for the first few songs. Towards the start of their set, both Vanessa and gum-chewing guitarist Richard Hornby seemed really rather uninterested and bored with  the whole thing – Vanessa’s singing seemed almost half-hearted and her stage banter extended only as far as name-checking “Lou, Lou Reeed” several times. The songs themselves, fundamentally rhythm-based, conventionally-structured pop,  weren’t strong or distinctive enough to survive  in stripped-down guitar-and-vocals form, feeling somewhat anaemic and lifeless.

Things got better when the duo were joined by the Beanies’ Ian Schranz on drums, improvising along to their songs. Ian did a pretty good job of it and the songs were helped immensely by being fleshed out with a rhythm. It was at that point that the first highlight of the set came up – “I Must be Dreaming”, while not exactly in any way a brilliant or remotely innovative song, had a hummability and a foot-tapabaility (if that’s a word) that the rest of the set lacked.

The second highlight was when the rest of the Beanies joined in for a full-band take on the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”. Replacing the dreamy wistfulness and gentle instrumentation of the original with a more upbeat, poppier approach, the song – which segued into a full-band reprise of “I Must be Dreaming” – provided some much-needed energy in the closing moments of the short set. The distinctly lacklustre start of the set wasn’t exactly forgotten, but the latter part of the performance at least ended the evening on an enjoyable note.

As an aside, I would be doing a disservice to the very idea of a blog named Coffee and Typescript if I didn’t mention the post-gig visit to Chiaroscuro in Strait Street. This was only my second to the upmarket and slightly off-puttingly posh coffee/wine bar, having been discouraged by some really terrible service the first time round, but it’s fair to say that they serve the best coffee I’ve tasted on the island. I haven’t come across any other place that gives you a choice of different varieties and blends of coffee when ordering an espresso – if you make it there, try the Jamaica Blue Mountain blend, it’s sublime. Yesterday I tried their spiced black coffee (which includes ground pepper, aniseed and cardamom pods), and it was an experience – the combination of the strong coffee flavour with the cardamom aroma and an unexpectedly powerful spicy-hot kick works pretty damn well.

I realize I’m several years behind the times, but over the past few months I’ve started working my way through the Hellboy TPs. Guillermo Del Toro’s 2004 film – in my opinion one of the best superhero movies of all time, certainly the most entertaining – was, I suppose like many people, my introduction to the character. The big red guy himself is an easy hero to love. I can’t think of any other superhero so constantly amusing, sympathetic and downright endearingly lovable. As is de rigeur for any modern hero, there’s a darkness to him, mostly due to his occluded, demonic past, but what makes him so unique is his brash, no-nonsense demeanour and his unexpectedly soft side (I can’t really see Batman fighting off a rabid hell-beast to save a crate of kittens).

Coming to Mike Mignola’s comics after Del Toro’s film – which is remarkably faithful in tone and atmosphere to its source – meant the set-up, broad narrative arc and cast were already familiar, but this didn’t in any way diminish the exuberant joy, thrilling plotting and endless invention of Mignola’s work. His artwork is the first thing to grab the attention, and it is truly wondrous – endearingly stylised yet emotive, cartoonishly energetic yet restrained, with bold, bright colours and solid, deep shadows.

The world depicted through his art is a delight – a pop-culture carnival of the comic-macabre, borrowing as much from traditional folk-tales as from B-movies, indebted equally to H.P. Lovecraft, the Brothers Grimm and Hammer movies. This contrast is reflected in the tone of Hellboy’s adventures. His battles against the scum of the underworld and his quest to understand his origins are sheer, shameless, glorious pulp entertainment, packed with Nazi brains in jars, giant undead gorillas, vampires, fairies, golems, ancient demons et cetera et cetera. But in the spaces and around the edges of the action there is something more than a hint of the cosmic, ancestral horrors lurking in the darkness of ancient folk-tales. These suggestions are never overplayed or focused upon; their place is in the background to the action, colouring in the scene, not dominating it, but there are moments of poetry in between the fist-fights that might almost be called beautiful.  In the best Hellboy stories, for instance “The Corpse”, from which the above image is taken, the two sensibilities – the pulp and the mythic – bleed into each other – an Irish folk-tale retold in a B-movie idiom, not losing its eerie mystery, but gaining in wit, energy and colour.

Besides its titular character, it is this interplay that makes Hellboy so absorbing and downright fun. And just as Del Toro got Hellboy himself just right (it’s difficult to conceive of anyone but Ron Perlman in the role), he achieved the necessary tonal balance to bring Mignola’s world to life. If nothing has gone horribly wrong, Hellboy II is bound to be the most fun two hours I’ll spend in a cinema this year. There’s space for two great superhero films in one summer.

Over a black screen, the Our Father is whispered faintly. A burst of industrial noise. A close-up of a pair of lips zooms out slowly, revealing the lips’ owners – an aged nun. The scene zooms out further, and we see that the nun is buried to the neck on a beach. A pair of thugs observe the scene. Antony and the Johnsons’ “My Lady Story” kicks in as the scene cuts to a number of attractive young women playing volleyball, shot in angles and movements that seem more like a formalised dance than any sport. Cut again. Now an aged cowboy leans against a fence, observing horses galloping in a pasture.

These strange, seemingly unconnected images make up the breathtaking opening moments of Paolo Sorrentino’s L’Amico di Famiglia (The Family Friend). With his previous film, the remarkable Le Conseguenze dell’Amore (2004), Sorrentino had already started to demonstrate himself to be a stylist first and foremost – that film’s long takes, gracefully precise camera movements, striking compositions and elaborate mise-en-scene marked him out as a director self-consciously striving for auteur status. With L’Amico di Famiglia this is taken to an extreme – its self-consciously in-your-face, ornately baroque visual and aural construction might be accused of trying too hard, but when it works – and that’s most of the time – the results are arresting.

There are certainly enough similarities betwen L’Amico di Famiglia and its predecessor to set auteur theorists’ alarm bells ringing. Both are unflinching character studies of unattractive, no-longer-young men with inscrutable, eccentric habits, involved in shady dealings with the Italian underworld, living hermetic lives cut off from society. However, where Le Conseguenze dell’Amore‘s Titto di Girolamo (Toni Servillo) eventually gains much of the audience’s sympathy, L’Amico di Famiglia‘s Geremia de Geremei (Giacomo Rizzo) is every bit the monster he looks. A small-time usurer who grows rich off “helping” families pay for extravagant weddings for their daughters and who refuses to share his chocolate with anyone, including children, who terrorizes his victims – especially the women – and never shows the slightest hint of sympathy, he is a despicable, repulsive toad of a man, and one of the most unlikely protagonists I’ve seen in a long time.

The film’s tone is decidedly odd. The overall feeling is one of internal decay, of corruption, of old age regretting wasted lives and yearning for youth. Occasionally it verges onto Gothic horror – most notably in De Geremei’s dingy, decrepit apartment, which he shares with his dying mother. Mixed in with this in many scenes is a strong satirical intent that leaves no-one unscathed – the targets are as varied as the townspeople’s ridiculous obsession with weddings and funerals, to fund which they are ready to put themselves into debts they will never be able to clear, and the local (and very Italian) beauty contest. The satirical, the dramatic and the horrific intertwine, so that it is difficult to uncomplicatedly laugh at, condemn, sympathize with or pity any character. An old father’s obsession with planning a grand wedding feast his daughter doesn’t even want is clearly being a fool, but when we learn that this is his last chance to cut a good figure in front of his peers after a lifetime of humiliation, our exasperation is at least coloured with a hint of poignancy. There are moments, however, where the shifts in tone are a bit too much. Least successful are a handful of scenes – mostly involving prostitutes or big wads of cash – where Sorrentino seemingly attempts to momentarily shift gears into a Goodfellas-style vicarious crime-does-pay ride, complete with techno pumping on the soundtrack.

The insights we gain about De Geremei are not as revealing as what we learn about Di Girolamo in Le Conseguenze dell’Amore, and he remains more of a mystery by the time the credits roll. He is crippled by loneliness – while he calls himself everyone’s “friend”, he constantly repeats the fact that he has no friends, almost like a mantra – by a sense of missed opportunities, and perhaps by a touch of Oedipus complex, as he subconsciously competes for financial success with his absent father. These are all insights into his character, not justifications for his behaviour, and he is in no way redeemed by the end of the film. However, in a late twist, De Geremei himself falls victim to a scam and loses his fortune in a trap laid out by those closest to him – his utter humiliation is sealed by his having to accept money from his father to pay for his mother’s funeral. If, however, this allows us to feel some pity for him, it is balanced, in the film’s somewhat nihilistic viewpoint, by the realization that the innocent victims are every bit as capable of deceit and cruelty as De Geremei himself.

All discussions of Sorrentino’s films must, ultimately, return to the central question of style. His direction here is more formal and meticulous than in his earlier film, sometimes verging on the abstract. There are moments where L’Amico di Famiglia‘s aesthetic is overdone and its imagery obvious, though these are outnumbered by the sequences where it works powerfully and unsettlingly – as in those remarkable first images. Special mention must also be made of the music – Teho Teardo’s score, mixing Lynchian rumbles with minimalist strings, is an essential, ever-present element in the film’s construction, and is every bit as effective as Pascuale Catalano’s excellent score for Le Conseguenze dell’Amore. Somewhat less successful is Sorrentino’s use of pop songs on the soundtrack. The aim seems to have been Wong Kar-Wai-style repeated song refrains, returning at key intervals to mark specific moods. The problem is that the songs Sorrentino employs – by Antony and the Johnsons and Sigur Ros – are too overpowering, unduly dominating their respective scenes.

In the end, L’Amico di Famiglia is not as riveting or as flawlessly-executed a film as Le Conseguenze dell’Amore. It is not as narratively or stylistically focused, occasionally stumbling over its own extensive ambition. It is, however, never less than fascinating, and continues to mark Sorrentino as one of the most interesting of contemporary European film-makers.

Bleeding Heart Narrative play music that is at once ethereal and powerful. Constructed out of layered cellos and minimalist piano loops, understated electronic touches and the occasional voice, their music has all the texture and evocative atmosphere of the best ambient music, but these are very much songs: there is a dramatic quality, a progression and development, in these tracks that perhaps veer them closer to the post-rock camp.

Whatever label we choose to pin on this music, it is captivatingly beautiful, often wonderfully strange stuff; hauntingly autumnal and gorgeously melodic for the most part, occasionally descending into a distinctly uneasy, tense atonality. Each song feels epic in scope, but gently and unassumingly so – there are none of the histrionic crescendoes of post-rock bands like Explosions in the Sky here. Each track feels like a perfectly-wrought, fragile porcelain miniature full of intricacies and depths.