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Originally published on The Andy Gaudion Blog: http://andygaudion93.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/michael-perry-reviews-brave/
After Pixar concluded their majestic Toy Story franchise in 2010 (well, hopefully it was the conclusion…), they were the unquestioned masters of the animated realm. Boasting a string of classic movies which stood among the best ever put together – animated and otherwise – they had viewers young and old alike eating from the palms of their hands / fins / paws.
Then, along came Cars 2, and there was a shift in the balance. Their first critical (if not commercial) misstep, the general consensus is that Cars 2 is nothing but a disappointment, and born from a film which didn’t really warrant a sequel anyway. Suddenly, all sorts of doubts were thrown up: now that they’ve been bought by Disney, have Pixar sold out? With a release date for Monsters University now slated, and rumours of Finding Nemo 2 spreading through the grapevine, has creative motivation been pushed aside to make way for a more money-centric objective? These concerns have weighted Brave with a huge responsibility: Pixar have to prove that they’ve still got the mojo – they need to tighten their hold on the animation throne which is under threat from the gradual rise of DreamWorks.
Thankfully, though, Brave just about pulls it off. Pixar have taken more chances on this one, with the narrative following their first primarily-human cast. In addition, it’s their first film led by a female protagonist, and they have adopted a genre new to the studio personally, if not to their mother company: the fairy-tale. However, Brave isn’t quite as adventurous as it seems to be on the surface. Yes, it’s a film which is distinct in their catalogue, but it never fully delves into dramatically different territory, keeping the key components of their much-loved repertoire in place, and adhering to many of the conventions of a traditional Disney fairy-tale.
In the highlands of Scotland, the free-spirited, fun-loving Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) feels restricted by the wishes of her conservative mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Elinor makes arrangements for Merida to be betrothed to one of the valley’s esteemed warriors, but Merida wants to take control of her own destiny. Going against the grain of a traditional princess, her desires include practising archery, climbing mountains and chasing rainbows: none of that matrimony malarkey. When the men of the land compete to win Merida’s hand in marriage, the tension between mother and daughter finally comes to a head. From there, a dark dealing with a witch prompts a literal transformation, and without spoiling too much, Merida must find a way of bringing her mother back to her.
The tale begins fantastically, with a wonderful prologue featuring a young Merida as she receives her first bow. As ever, Pixar’s visuals are truly breath-taking, with painstaking attention to detail bestowed upon both the scenery and the characters. Pixar’s Highland-based heroes are brilliantly designed: colourful, expressive, and crucially, relatable. Merida is one of Pixar’s finest leading characters: a feisty, flame-haired pixie with a believable vulnerability nestled just beneath the surface. Kelly Macdonald does a terrific job, delivering a vocal performance which simply radiates fun and energy. Elsewhere, Billy Connolly shines as King Fergus, a huge one-legged softie who keeps the humour levels nicely balanced with his buffoonish antics and playful jibes.
The first half of the film is a delight, as we get to examine the deftly-drawn relationship between mother and daughter, with both arguments given consideration. It’s one of Pixar’s more mature touches: the ability to weave in elements suited to older and younger generations, and it’s a well-written, big-hearted and very human story. Unfortunately, there are a couple of moments when the film stalls. By and large, Pixar’s spin on the fairy-tale genre is delightful and fresh, but when the inevitable moralising arrives, it’s a little muddy and threadbare. The final act, too, doesn’t entirely gel: it’s all a bit of a whirlwind rush with little time to catch one’s breath, and as a result, the emotional pull of the climax suffers. There are also minor niggles: the will-o’-the-wisps are intriguing additions which could have done with more exploring, and likewise, the antagonistic force of the narrative feels like something of anafterthought, crying out for more space to breathe.
But there is always enough of that magic Pixar dust sprinkled about to just about keep it all in check: a lovely fishing scene set during a golden sunrise; an immersive world splashed with colour (main case in point being that wild, wicked hairdo); and Merida’s younger triplet siblings, who look set to be the groan-inducing infant comic relief, but who in fact hold their own amid the action – their mischief charming rather than irritating.
As Pixar offerings go, Brave can be comfortably ranked alongside A Bug’s Life and the original Cars: a film which may not quite compare with emotionally-fulfilling masterpieces such as Toy Story, Up and the like, but still a beautifully made, inventive piece of work, shot through with warmth and humour.
4/5 – Brave might not be as courageous as its title implies, but it’s certainly strong enough to show that when Pixar have the right tools, they can still make animated movie magic.
Originally published on The Andy Gaudion Blog: http://andygaudion93.wordpress.com/category/guest-posts/
One of the hundreds of online fan-made posters for The Dark Knight Rises summarises Christopher Nolan’s Batman cycle in three phases: begins, falls, rises. After the gothic noir of the origin story (Batman Begins) and the chaotic crime epic (The Dark Knight), Nolan has set both the Caped Crusader and himself a pretty hefty challenge to rise to for the final lighting of the Bat-signal. Rarely has a film had this level of anticipation fastened to it: in the wake of a towering sequel which broke the boundaries of what comic-book films could achieve, the hype and expectation burdened upon The Dark Knight Rises was enough to leave cinemagoers buzzing with countless anxious questions. Will it tarnish this otherwise-perfect series? Will it be too overcrowded? Will Catwoman fit into this world? Will it be better than The Dark Knight?
But at last, it has finally been released, and the story of Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is done. And audiences everywhere can breathe a collective sigh of relief: it’s a blistering, thrilling, glorious conclusion to a much-loved series. Nolan has been slowly honing in on a masterful filmmaking formula over the last few years, and The Dark Knight Rises is yet another gem to add to his already-gleaming catalogue. With his directing skills stronger than ever (action sequences are now much clearer and crisper than the dizzying fights of Batman Begins) and with a head-spinning array of ideas and possibilities corralled into a cohesive, intelligent thrill-ride (big props to Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer), Nolan bows out of Gotham on a high note.
If you don’t mind (and you probably won’t at this late stage), I’ll try and leave out exposition and lengthy synopses, because I think everyone’s tired of re-reading the story so far after countless other reviews, articles and the like. Besides, it’s now August 2012, so only those dwelling under rocks will be unfamiliar with Batman’s arc. Suffice to say, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) isn’t in the best shape, and nor is Gotham once the masked terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy) rolls into town, intent on bringing the city to its knees.
As with most finales, the scope has been widened, the stakes raised, and the scale enlarged to end proceedings with a bang. The team have returned with a story which picks up where The Dark Knightleft off, and several threads from the previous films have been consolidated, lengthened, and neatly tied up. Bale is definitely centre-stage this time around, as Wayne’s story is brought full circle. The film does a great job of exploring the tortured psyche of the tragedy-stricken hero, with both sides of his character investigated. Bale’s performance here is his strongest in the series, as he invests Wayne with a poignant vulnerability as he undergoes his most exhausting journey yet. It’s a real tightrope act, with Bale just about managing to remain the central focus of the film, even with such a strong supporting cast and while facing off against such a monstrous adversary.
The rub with playing the villain in this film is that expectations have been raised to skyscraping levels after Heath Ledger’s masterful turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Tom Hardy was always going to have a mighty shadow to try and escape from, but a number of critics have dismissed his Bane – muscular, logical and ruthless – as disappointing in the wake of Ledger’s anarchic, cackling clown. But this is ridiculously unfair. Both villains are separate creations with different character traits, methods and backgrounds (both in the film universe and in the comics), and should be treated as such. Comparing one to the other is kind of ludicrous, especially since within their own roles, both actors deliver to the best possible standard. Yes, Heath Ledger was a truly exceptional actor. But then, so is Tom Hardy, and the Bane of this universe is absolutely terrifying. Working from behind that creepy (but cumbersome) mask, Hardy pulls off a fantastic feat with simply his eyes, body language and that voice: an unsettling, croaky tone which bubbles over with confidence and malice. And yes, it’s understandable! Okay, there are times when a line or two is indecipherable (I’d argue that the placing of Hans Zimmer’s otherwise-wonderful score slightly too high in the mix plays some part in that), but for the most part, Bane’s voice reverberates with a booming menace.
And he’s surprisingly charismatic, too. One of the film’s best scenes focuses on a furious tirade from Bane as he stands astride a familiar-looking vehicle, making his plans clear as he raises his own army in the battle for Gotham. Even behind the mask, the anger, disgust and traces of a sick, facetious pleasure punctuate every syllable and gesticulation. And in the fight scenes, too, he is as intimidating as he looks. There is one moment in particular when Bane completely lets loose in a rapid-fire flurry of fists, and it’s a truly horrifying sight as the behemoth smashes through concrete and more while snarling like a wild animal. This time around, you genuinely fear for the people of Gotham, and for Batman in particular: as comic-book fans would put it, Bruce Wayne should watch his back.
As for Anne Hathaway, let’s just say that all those who balked at the thought of her portraying Selina Kyle are probably wiping egg from their collective faces right now. And yes, I was among those naysayers. But stab me with a sharpened heel, Hathaway’s performance is absolutely wonderful, with her character (the title ‘Catwoman’ isn’t actually used once during this film) capable of holding her own against the big, brutal boys of Nolan’s Bat-verse. She lands in this world on two nimble feet, bringing with her several crucial ingredients for this incarnation of the ambiguous Kyle: humanity and humour. The final creation is a cat burglar who feels authentic and believable.
She almost steals the show, but not quite. Everyone is given time to shine here: Gary Oldman remains pitch-perfect as the weary-but-resolute Commissioner Gordon; Morgan Freeman enjoys an expanded role as Lucius Fox (more integral than he’s ever been in this saga); and Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets to sink his teeth into one hell of a role as the young, idealistic cop John Blake, who has a character arc so juicy that one almost forgets that he’s only just been introduced into the series.
Of course, what with this being the final episode of the trilogy and all, emotions run high. Anyone who argues that Nolan can’t hit viewers where it hurts (the tear ducts) might want to reconsider their arguments: there were about half-a-dozen moments in the film where things got more than a little misty for me. A good number of those belong to Michael Caine, who pulls on the heartstrings something awful on at least four occasions, most achingly so early on, when Alfred recalls his saddened trips to a particular café. And some pretty dark depths are plumbed in the story, with Bruce Wayne reduced to his lowest ebb and Gotham precariously positioned in the hands of a seemingly indestructible, tactical enemy. Unlike the breezy (but no-less brilliant) Avengers Assemble and the competent-but-underwhelming Amazing Spider-Man, here you get the impression that things really could go catastrophically wrong. Gotham might just be reduced to ashes after all.
But it’s not all tears and fears: as with its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises never loses the light completely, with witty barbs and dry quips sprinkled throughout the darkness, most of them courtesy of Hathaway, who can spark one-liners as deftly as Kieran Culkin’s Wallace from Scott Pilgrim. And thankfully, the light touches of comedy never overbalance the tone, seldom spoiling the mood or flow of the scenes they accompany.
This is crucial, because as with the previous films, the emphasis is firmly on making this realistic, and everything feels organic to the tone of the trilogy, while also feeling relevant to modern climates: economic collapse, terrorism and fears of impending apocalypse all inform the film’s action. It also helps that Nolan isn’t that keen on CGI, and as a result, the special effects are never short of breathtaking, lending the action sequences a real sense of high-stakes urgency rivalled by few other blockbusters. Football stadiums erupt, bridges crumple and huge-scale chase sequences are orchestrated, with the latter moments seeing Batman piloting a high-tech (and pretty freaking cool) new toy from Fox’s funhouse.
Perhaps inevitably, there are flaws. There are a fair number of plot-holes which have the potential to nag away at you for a while, and personally, I would’ve liked to have seen further exploration and characterisation of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and Peter Foley (Matthew Modine), whose stories are engaging, but feel lacking in places. But then, with the film already spanning a bum-breaking one-hundred-and-sixty-five minutes, it’s understandable that some of the finer points have been left aside.
So no, it’s not quite perfect. But let’s leave it to the forum fanboys to make mountains out of these molehills. The bottom line is this: I haven’t seen a film as exciting as this in quite some time. With outstanding performances all around, some genuinely heart-racing action sequences and a potent emotional punch, Nolan has concluded his trilogy in true style. Have no fear Mr. Gaudion – it’s the finale Batman deserves.
5/5 – Sure, it has its inevitable flaws. But The Dark Knight Rises is a triumphant rollercoaster ride which ties the trilogy together with a hugely satisfying finale.
Originally published on The Boar online: http://theboar.org/music/2012/aug/23/dark-knight-rises-ost/
There are no two ways about it, really: The Dark Knight Rises is the biggest film of the year. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has finally come to a triumphant close, and credit is due for all involved after ending the franchise in such spectacular style. Of course, two of the biggest contributors to the series have been Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, whose orchestral scores for the trilogy have not only served and complemented the films, but have also enriched them: they are as much a part of the Batman universe as the characters themselves. A case in point: the two-note Batman cue has become as iconic as the man himself.
For the soundtrack to the final instalment in the franchise, full compositional duties were left to Zimmer, with Howard moving on to other projects. Across the fifteen tracks arranged here, the central concerns of the film’s narrative shine through: on nearly every track one can discern the push-and-pull of dread and hope, of menace and valour. After a brief and ominous opening piece, the glacial strings of On Thin Ice establish a wintry, haunting atmosphere heavily laden with the sense of approaching doom. Even if you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises, you’ll be able to pick out moments of despair, of grief, and of triumph. Shorter, more restrained segments such as Born In Darkness and Death By Exile add further tension amid the more explosive action cues, with the jagged meters and twisty structures of tracks such as The Fire Rises sounding as chaotic and malevolent as the scenes they accompany within the film.
Zimmer has also kept continuity in mind, with signatures of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight incorporated into the mix here as well. The sense of continuity these moments bring is suitable, given that the trilogy has indeed come full circle, though the momentum falters slightly in the middle of the record, as one begins to wish that Zimmer would occasionally change tack a little more often (as he does on the throbbing synthesisers of Underground Army, a superbly unsettling track which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack for last year’s Drive). Still, the familiar cues and themes are interwoven with enough new flourishes and tweaks that the whole still manages to engage and excite for the most part. What is arguably the strongest collision of old and new scores arrives in the form of Why Do We Fall? – an electrifying track which colours a pivotal moment for Bruce Wayne.
Imagine The Fire and Rise are the two biggest – and longest – suites on the soundtrack. Both are suitably thunderous, heart-in-mouth compositions set to the film’s climactic final trials and battles. Both are brilliant, although the most impressive moments are found in the songs in which Zimmer gets to try new tricks. Mind If I Cut In? is sparse, slinky, and playfully ambiguous: the perfect theme for Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle. But the real highlight is the theme constructed for Tom Hardy’s chilling terrorist behemoth, Bane – a four-minute piece entitled Gotham’s Reckoning. The murky, urgent horns that open the track are soon joined by a spine-chilling brass motif, which recalls the signature arrangement from Jaws as it resurfaces repeatedly throughout the song, always dripping with menace. Bursts of percussion crackle like thunderclouds, before the tension explodes in a deliberate, upwards surge of strings, horns, brass and crashing drums. It’s horribly claustrophobic, and completely genius: the perfect sound for one of the big screen’s most intimidating villains.
Several of the songs on offer do lack the emotional wallop of their parent scenes: without Michael Caine’s watery eyes, Nothing Out There doesn’t quite tug at the heartstrings as well as it does during the film (although to be perfectly honest, that’s no big shock). However, criticising a soundtrack for providing a different experience to its film feels inappropriate. The soundtrack was made to accompany the film, and within that context, it works wonders. What we have here is a product which plays it part within the film perfectly, and which, when considered as a standalone article, is also an engaging, heart-racing creation in its own right. A must-have for Batfans and Zimmer buffs alike.
“Boy, you are in for a show tonight, son…”
Originally published on The Boar online: http://theboar.org/music/2012/jul/9/awesome-wave/
Even after seeing Alt-J perform as a support act a few months ago, I never thought I’d get around to buying their debut album on its eventual release. Let alone, that I’d give it five stars. But in the world of music, surprises await even in the unlikeliest of places. On the surface, the assembled members of Alt-J look like another of the countless indie line-ups which have come scrambling out of the woodwork in the last decade or so. Their image consists of a familiarly awkward look: twitchy, and perhaps carrying a couple of quirks up their sleeve, but suggestive of thrills which are nothing beyond lightweight. Well, when I finally got around to buying An Awesome Wave, I was pleasantly surprised. The more I listened, however, the more that surprise turned into astonishment. Because this record is more than good: it’s amazing.
The sound concocted by the Cambridgeshire-based four-piece has clear influences, though the overall effect never sounds anything other than fresh. Most visibly, the beats and samples the group utilise link them closely to electronica artist Four Tet: witness the main arrangement of the album’s skittering centrepiece Dissolve Me. Elsewhere are shades of In Rainbows-era Radiohead, the minimalism of The xx, and equal smatterings of hip hop and folk. If this sounds messy on paper, it sounds miraculous through the headphones: brimming with invention, earworm melodies and enough ticks and nuances to ensure a shelf-life considerably longer than the sounds of their art-rock contemporaries. And while these points of reference are never far off, the end product is very much its own beast.
I’ve made my own personal love for albums-as-albums clear in the past, and An Awesome Wave fits this bill with aplomb. This record signposts its own requirement to be listened to as a whole by featuring three interludes and an introduction, and these are no meagre pieces of filler. Each serves as a perfect evolutionary bridge between the songs bordering it. Just listen to the way the ominous a cappella harmonising of Interlude 1 seamlessly leads into the thrumming, deeply sensual waters of Tessellate. As implied by its title, this is an album which flows, and flows well.
In a group of eccentric-looking (but undeniably talented) oddballs, Joe Newman’s voice is the oddest of them all. Croaky, mumbling and prone to the occasional yelp, his vocals are unusual to say the least, and will likely be the deciding factor in whether or not you’re sold on this album. You’ll either find yourself hypnotised by the way Newman softly croons obtuse lyrics like a nasally Thom Yorke, or be so put off that you’ll chose to end the album early. Lyrically, too, he delves into strange territory. “She may contain the urge to run away so hold her down with soggy clothes and breezeblocks,” is the command opening the propulsive, shape-shifting second single (possibly the only song which can be listened to in isolation without losing any of its clout). Eschewing traditional love song platitudes in favour of something much more disturbing, the song ends on a chilling note as multiple harmonies criss-cross each other, blending “I love you so” with “I’ll eat you whole”. Things are just as menacing elsewhere. “Bite chunks out of me,” Newman groans over the addictive, seasick pulse of Tessellate, with the group keeping things sparse and restrained to swell the unease.
But all the peculiarities can’t mask the fact that this music contains some serious muscle. An Awesome Wave packs a serious loud-quiet dynamic which is consistently surprising. The wonderfully atmospheric Intro is utterly gripping from the off: cool, powerful, and a tantalising glimpse into what’s in store. From there the album keeps the pace controlled with forays into sci-fi-folk (Interlude 2, Matilda) and warm balladry (Ms) as it builds towards a triumphant conclusion. The group really show their steel in the crushing heaviness of Fitzpleasure, and after a final interlude, the album reaches its glorious crowning moment in the haunting, devastating Bloodflood. It all concludes with the almost-oriental sway of Taro, although hidden track Handmade awaits as the album’s delicate sign-off.
Some listeners will frown on this album with cries of “pretension”, and I’m sure there’ll be a fair sum of people who completely disagree with a five-star rating. An Awesome Wave doesn’t sound effortless at all: it sounds precise, carefully constructed and colourful in its arrangements. And while there is an argument that music can sound too stodgy and overthought, here that notion is beside the point: whichever way you look at it, there is no ignoring the effort that these guys pour into their sound. Constantly pushing the envelope, An Awesome Wave is an album both different and thoroughly decent.
Don’t tune in expecting a ground-breaking, life-changing classic which will stand among the best in your record collection (although it may well do so). Instead, try to approach it with an open mind, preparing to give it a few spins before the magic is unlocked completely. And I strongly urge against cherry-picking a few songs to sample before you decide to give the whole thing a listen. Dive into it headfirst: make your own opinion by playing it in its entirety from start to finish, Intro to Handmade, and preferably not just as something to listen to in the background. You’ll either listen to it and love it, or listen to it and hate it. But whatever you do, listen to it. Don’t let this wave pass you by.
“Triangles are my favourite shape.”
Originally published on The Boar online: http://theboar.org/music/2012/may/29/bloom/
In the last few months, numerous music critics have signposted Bloom as the album which will finally see Beach House achieve full crossover appeal. Each previous album has gently nudged the Baltimore two-piece closer and closer towards widespread critical recognition, without sacrificing an ounce of their integrity or dynamic. The title of the album is perfectly apt: the ten songs on offer here (well, eleven if you count the lilting hidden track Wherever You Go) are all built from simple components, but each one soon flowers into something quietly euphoric: fragile, pretty and fervent.
It seems that the group have largely stuck with the winning formula of 2010’s Teen Dream, one of the year’s surprise favourites in many end-of-year polls. That album provided the perfect balance between the intimate and the epic, with songs like Zebra and Better Times by turns both sparse and soaring. By and large, Bloom sticks to the same hazy, dream-pop template, although there are slight variations in sound discernible here, such as the widescreen swoop of Wild (possibly the band’s most ‘epic’-sounding track yet) and the prominent use of keyboard squiggles on the slow-burning single Lazuli.
As with previous Beach House releases, the hooks only begin to emerge from the haze after several listens, but Bloom also features some of the band’s most immediate songs. The Mazzy Star-esque Other People is absolutely gorgeous, and the soaring, bittersweet chorus of Troublemaker is one of the most powerful the duo have ever composed. Victoria Legrand’s smoky, operatic voice remains the group’s strongest asset, as she perfectly slips from subtlety to gutsiness over lyrics which are simple on paper, but which she invests with an achingly melancholic power. And yet fellow member Alex Scally is never overshadowed: his silky guitar lines remain absolutely integral: just witness the dazzling melodies which slide into focus during Other People and Wishes, the latter of which is the album’s softest – and sweetest – outing.
Unless being very nitpicky, finding flaws in Bloom is a hard task, although for some, there won’t be enough deviation in Beach House’s soundscapes to keep them fully engaged for the entire fifty-minute runtime. If you don’t enjoy the signature sound of the group, then there’s probably not much here for you. However, for existing fans, and for fans of the genre in particular, this album is a real treat, and one of the strongest of the year so far. Though it arguably doesn’t quite reach the heights of Teen Dream, Bloom is a beautifully crafted album whose treasure trove of sweet lullabies will be more than enough to keep fans satisfied.
“It’s a strange paradise.”
Originally published in The Boar online: http://theboar.org/music/2012/may/20/what-happened-album/
Quick question: when was the last time you listened to an album in its entirety?
That’s not a question where I would expect for one answer to clearly dominate over another. It’s genuinely difficult to predict: some people might have played one just a few hours ago; for others, it could be a matter of weeks, maybe even months since they last sat through an LP. I just hope that nobody would answer with “it’s been a few years…”
To be honest, it’s no big issue. With downloading, streaming, file-sharing and playlist-compiling now so integrated into the average music aficionado’s lifestyle, it should be no surprise that we have less and less time to listen to entire albums with all the endlessly exciting new music just waiting to be discovered. Most listeners nowadays will merely sample music: giving one song a quick listen and then deciding if this artist is worth their time (and maybe even their money). But with the music industry becoming increasingly competitive as millions of wannabes flounder for attention and recognition, it takes a lot to really inspire a listener into going out on a limb and downloading / buying an entire album. Then, of course, there is the process of listening to it in full.
Even simply being at university poses a problem, or it does for me at least. Back in the homeland, on an average day I’ll normally be able to listen to two or three albums. At university, it’s another matter. For one thing, all I have with me here at Warwick are digital copies of my music collection, and frankly, listening to an entire album through my laptop’s tinny speakers isn’t nearly as satisfying as turning up the stereo system back at home. But even beyond the off-putting nature of deficient sound quality, finding time is nigh-on impossible with the hectic schedule of deadlines, revision and gatherings in the pub.
In fact, the only times that I can regularly listen to music are when I’m either out for a run, or walking to a lecture. In the case of the former, listening to an album all the way through while trying to keep up a steady pace is possible, but not exactly easy. As with most people, it’s normally a case of pick-and-mix to keep the most rhythmic tracks in circulation. There are a couple of albums which will work in that scenario, but you’re not always in the mood for their particular flavour when struggling up Gibbet Hill.
As for making my way from A to B on campus, I’ll normally just pop on the headphones for a quick few songs to capture the mood as I take the most direct route. And even with most of my classes situated in Millburn House (essentially a stone’s throw from Westwood), that still means the longest route I will regularly take when on campus takes me about fifteen minutes to make, which is naturally nowhere near enough for a proper album playback. Instead, I could always go for an EP, but nine times out of ten, I’ll just cherry-pick a few individual songs and then it’ll be time to unplug the iPod and unpack the lecture notebook.
It’s a shame, really, because even though there’s nothing at all wrong with having favourite individual songs, I always feel like I really should be devoting time to listening to them in the context of the album. This may be a little pretentious, and I realise that they are three disparate mediums, but personally, I always approach albums, films and novels in the same way. Each one is a comprehensive whole, split into a number of chapters. Granted, these parts can be set in different scenes, or carry different messages, and some are complete non-sequiturs, but ultimately, they’re all part of a larger product.
Seldom does one read a novel and think that an entire chapter could quite easily have been left out entirely without hampering the rest of the plot, or the overall effect of the book. With films it’s a little harder to judge, but you’d like to imagine that after the editing process, anything throwaway has been left on the cutting room floor. Of course, when watching a film, you’re going to have some favourite moments, and you can re-watch those moments in isolation afterwards if you want to. But more often than not, it won’t have the same effect it first had once it has been separated from the sequence it was placed into. I suppose this is truer with films than albums, given the emphasis on narrative structure and any use of cinematic tension-and-release, but still, I find skipping a song is like skipping a scene from a film, even if nothing overly substantial takes place. I just feel like I’m missing something from the whole experience as it was packaged.
My friend Josh sums it up perfectly. One of our favourite past-times is spending an evening in the university local, the Dirty Duck, discussing our favourite music releases over a pint or two. A few months ago, I admitted that I’d neglected listening to Radiohead’s indispensable OK Computer for a good few months, and he enthused: “it’s just a magic album. The way it just fits together is perfect: Airbag straight into Paranoid Android…”
And this really got me thinking about the importance of sequencing. It may sound like pretentious babble, but that urban legend is true: songs really can complement each other. A well-sequenced album can take multiple songs – which are individually brilliant in their own right – and transform them into a powerful, single unit (as corny as that sounds). There are countless examples of songs which sound inseparable. Wild Beasts’ Bed Of Nails just sounds so much more impressive straight off the back of Lion’s Share. Spiritualized’s Cop Shoot Cop… can only really do the damage if it’s blasted at the end of the seventy-minute odyssey that is the spectacular Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. And once you’ve started playing Intro by The xx, you can’t pull yourself away until after the final, glassy moments of Stars. And albums don’t need to have a cohesive thread or concept for this to work: sometimes the songs are dissimilar (in subject or in sound) but just flow brilliantly, keeping the pace and mood perfectly controlled.
Admittedly, some of my favourite albums are just collections of pop songs bundled together with no real thread, and I can happily dip in and out of those at any given time. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a well-performed cluster of self-contained three-minute pop bursts. But the albums that really stick out for me are ones which I have to set aside time for: ones which I’ll have to sit with from beginning to end for forty minutes or an hour in order to maximise the effect. And in a sense, now that I have less time to spend on the pleasure of music discovery, university has made me appreciate the idea of an album as an experience even more.