Thursday, 23 December 2010

Shanghai 5 [2010]



Film: Shanghai 5
Director: Charles Lanceplaine

Shanghai 5 is a film about skateboarding in Shanghai. While the film is focussed on the burgeoning skating scene in Shanghai, it also touches on a lot of interesting cultural and socio-political values prevalent in China at the moment and how it affects skateboarding and skating culture. Throughout the film, director Charles Lanceplaine intersperses beautifully shot scenes of Shanghai's vast cityscapes, interviews with the main proponents of the skating scene and of course, plenty of shots of the skaters themselves doing what they do best.

While I couldn't be considering a skating fan by any stretch of the imagination, I found watching Shanghai 5 a very moving experience. On a personal level, Shanghai is quite a familiar place to me having been there a few times and it's a city that I have a real love/hate relationship with. The film also goes much deeper than any other skating film I've seen, widening its scope so as to include musings on Chinese culture and the ever-changing political identity of the country and commenting on how these factors heavily affect the development of skateboarding in the city. There's some really great first-hand accounts of how the 'one-child-policy' affects how young people approach skateboarding; in one instance, a professional talks about the clash in interest between his parents wanting him to study intensively for his high school exams and his own desire to become a professional skateboarder. It reminded me of when I spoke to Rustic, a punk band from Beijing; they told me that aside from their own parents being against what they were doing, Carsick Cars singer Shou Wang still had arguments with his parents about his career, even though he's in China's biggest indie rock band and has toured with Sonic Youth and travelled the world playing music. The film takes the view that I myself take, and that is that the 'one-child-policy' makes parents incredibly eager for their child to succeed at any price and by success, they mean graduating from university and getting a well-paid job. The level of dedication shown by the skaters in the film is the same as with Chinese bands that I know; they do it out of pure passion, as there is rarely any real financial gain for them.

The film is technically very well-shot and features a great soundtrack of stuff from Gui Boratto to Bonobo and some very old Chinese pop music. You can watch the whole film in HD on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Lily Chou-Chou - エーテル [2010]



Artist: Lily Chou-Chou
Single: Ether
Label: Oorong Records

I can hardly believe it myself, but producer Takeshi Kobayashi and Salyu have reunited for the tenth anniversary of All About Lily Chou-Chou (2000), which means that the fictional singer Lily Chou-Chou has been effectively resurrected. Since the film, singer Salyu, who plays Lily in the film has gone to release records, so it may be asked what the fuss is about a new Lily Chou-Chou song. The answer is that it is the first time since working on the film and indeed discovering Salyu and bringing her into the public eye, that producer Takeshi Kobayashi has worked with Salyu in the context of the Lily Chou-Chou project.

The first Lily Chou-Chou album has remained a favourite of mine for a long time; Salyu's forlorn vocals, stretching out, pained and desperate over Kobayashi's productions which blend trip-hop and electronic drumbeats with mellotrons, synthesisers and a live band for the more optimistic tracks. Film director Shunji Iwai wrote all of the lyrics for the first album too, and although I can't understand them, I can imagine that Iwai would have matched the poetry that he conveyed through the film's images with equal power through the music's words.

This time round, we are treated to a far more polished affair. Salyu's voice has evidently grown stronger in the past ten years since the first album, but it still has an ethereal quality that remains ineffable. There are certainly echoes of the production-style that was prevalent on the first album, but it's been revamped; there's still the slow, chugging electronic beats and the slowly growing, organic textures and the whole atmosphere of isolation, longing and melancholia that drove the first album, but the production sounds better and the instruments sound fresher than ever.

To me, it's the same Lily as ever. The metaphor for all of the kids growing up who feel out of place in their environment, and feel (quite rightly) at odds with the world that they live in. This is just as great as any of the tracks from the first album, and probably even better than some (sacrilegious statement, I know). For any Lilyholics/Lilyphiliacs out there, this is unmissable.

As far as I know, the single hasn't been released in Europe yet, so the only place you can hear it is YouTube, and if you know a way of getting around the block iTunes puts on other countries, via iTunes Japan.

Music Video (HD):

Friday, 10 December 2010

Tujiko Noriko - Solo [2007]



Artist: Tujiko Noriko
Album: Solo
Label: Editions Mego

Tujiko Noriko is a Japanese musician making glitchy ambient beats with a uniquely quirky touch. She is often compared to Piana, but this is incredibly misleading as her music is far more concrete and decidedly electronic, as opposed to Piana's relatively lush arrangements that use electronics in the context of creating gentle ambience. Solo is Tujiko's sixth full-length album and shows yet another mutation in her style; while Shojo Toshi, Make Me Hard and From Tokyo to Naiagara all had their dark moments, Solo is possibly her deepest, murkiest album to date.

Album opener, the plunging, doom-laden 'Magic' sets the tone for the rest of Solo; what sounds like broken turntables moan over a mechanically unromantic drum machine while an organ drones away in the background. As is always the case on her albums, Tujiko's melodies lull on seemingly without refrain, in an almost conversational style and without a hint of cutesy girlishness. Indeed, Tujiko's voice always seems to be placed between two opposing dualities; she suggests a certain naïvely playful approach to the productions, yet her control over the relationship between the music and her words clearly displays an omnipotence over the sound. While she explores a multitude of different styles through her warped musical vocabulary: weird electro-hip-hop ('In a Chinese Restaurant'), spoken word ('No Error in My Memory') and even veering into guitar-rock at one point ('Ending Kiss'), the album has a really cohesive feel even though it feels all over the place at the same time. The main guiding feature of the album is Tujiko's vocals and her bizarre and unconventional melodic structures, which is perhaps what allows the album to feel so much like a single unit. Even when compared to near-masterpieces like Make Me Hard, Solo really stands up on its own as a definitive item in Tujiko Noriko's ever-growing discography.

Tracklist:

1) Magic
2) Sun
3) Ending Kiss
4) Let Me See Your Face
5) Saigo no Chikyu
6) Gift
7) No Error in My Memory
8) Spot
9) In a Chinese Restaurant

Download (link taken from thesirenssound.com. Password is sirenssound.blogspot.com)
Spotify

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Fat Jon - Lightweight Heavy [2004]



Artist: Fat Jon
Album: Lightweight Heavy
Label: Exceptional Records

Lightweight Heavy is the title of hip-hop producer Fat Jon (also known as Fat Jon the Ample Soul Physician)'s third album. Perhaps more famous for his work with Five Deez, collaborations with Nujabes and contributions to the soundtrack of Samurai Champloo, Fat Jon is a renown producer who makes texturally rich beats and even takes the mic on tracks by Five Deez and on various guest appearances on other hip-hop records. More famous in Japan than perhaps anywhere else in the world, his music has influenced a wave of new Japanese hip-hop producers alongside Nujabes and others on Seba Jun's Hydeout Productions label.

Lightweight Heavy stands as a fine example of Fat Jon's work. It's all here: the undeniably funky drum breaks, the chilled out vibe and peaceful atmosphere, slowed down soul samples, super-heavy deep bass-lines, all underlined by a strong jazzy overtone. While Pase Rock, Chilly Most and Sonic's intelligent, rhythmically and poetically complex verses are always more than welcome on a Five Deez record, Lightweight Heavy is a platform for Fat Jon to explore the full-extent of his sound without needing to tailor the pieces for MCs. While with Five Deez, Fat Jon's productions are always intentionally low-key and allow for the lyrical input of the other members, little is held back on this record; production takes centre-stage and the listener is ushered into a mellifluously groovy sound-world. Jon is not afraid to use grainy vinyl samples alongside crisply recorded live instrumentation and revels in the point at which each becomes indiscernible from the other. Lightweight Heavy has a strong spiritual vibe, a million miles away from the productions of hardcore and gangsta rap. I always feel that there's a New Age feel that runs through the work of not only Fat Jon but also that of Cyne and the aforementioned Nujabes, perhaps exemplified by the sampling of New Age electronic explorers in all three artists' work. If you're into new-school hip-hop, and want a break from the more confrontational sounds of certain subgenres, check this out.

I've seen a few blogs that have been directly contacted by Fat Jon asking them not to post download links on their blog, so I feel that it would be disrespectful to do so here. I listen to his stuff via Spotify, so I'll post a link to the album on there instead.

Tracklist:

1) Talk to Me
2) Dreamers
3) Day
4) Everywhere
5) Her
6) Far Away
7) Torn Again
8) Mystery God
9) Synopsis
10) You Are
11) Body Language
12) Beyond Love
13) Space Man
14) Point A 2 B

New Order - Ceremony [1981]



Artist: New Order
Single: Ceremony
Label: Factory Records

Ceremony is a single by New Order, written with Ian Curtis in the original Joy Division line-up and recorded by the reformed group after his death. While the lyrics and music were co-written by Curtis, the band dissolved before the song was recorded in the studio. To date, only three recordings of Joy Division playing the track remain: the first, featured on the compilation album Still (1981) was recorded at a performance by the group at Birmingham University. Unfortunately, the recording starts partway through the introduction of the song and Curtis' vocals are inaudible for the first part of the song. The second version is a home recording of the song in its early stages and is available on the Heart and Soul (1997) box set and the third version is an audience-recorded version of the song played for a sound-check on the 2nd of May, 1980. Later on, after Joy Division had reformed without Curtis as New Order, two versions were recorded: the first, as a three-piece with Sumner, Hook and Morris, released in March 1981 in a gold-pressed sleeve (the version that I'm talking about) and the second, recorded with new member Gillian Gilbert in September 1981 (the more well-known version).

History aside, I want to talk about the record itself. Although I don't often write about singles, this is undoubtedly one of my favourite singles of all-time, so it's worthy of its own post. I first heard the track on Sofia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette (2006), where it is used in a particularly beautiful scene in which the Queen and her friends stay up all night drinking and having fun and eventually sit and watch the sunrise together. I later discovered an original copy of the 7" in my own house in a box of my Dad's old records in the garage. It was well preserved and sounded gorgeous when I put it on the turntable; something about it was different to the other recording and I thought it sounded better (I later realised that the version I had was a different one to the version used in the film). All of the emotions were right there and seemed to just slowly swarm around me and drag me under, feeling at once satisfying and yet always leaving me yearning for something more. Therein lies the secret of the music.

Obviously the band were recording this track under a year after Ian Curtis' death, his suicide would still have been heavy on the minds of all the members. Bernard Sumner's world-weary vocals seem to channel some part of Curtis' own voice through the track, not through sonic emulation, but through something deeper and on a more basic, communicative level. All of the instruments sound alien: Hook's bass is smothered in a really thick chorus effect, Sumner's jutting, angular guitar seems far away in the mix and echoes through the filter of the other instruments; Morris' drumming resounds with pure conviction and a relentless drive while stray guitar melodies woozily whirr around, spinning in and out of tune with the other instruments. Despite this huge sound, the group is really very stripped back with only three members present on record, relying more on pure emotional drive and some ethereal power to push the music from its uncertain beginning to its definite conclusion.

The meaning and thought behind Curtis' lyrics, which portray a man desperately unsure of his situation and standing in his own life and helplessly groping through the darkness of existence towards a perceived end, are incredibly evocative and wonderfully vocalised by Sumner. There is a feeling that Sumner is not trying to replicate Curtis' singing style, but that he has felt a pure connection with the music and words and fully comprehended what Curtis was really trying to communicate through them. There is such a sense of desperation and realness in the music; it simultaneously seems to be hopeful and optimistic, the music propelling itself into the sky with its clockwork drumming and lulling guitar shapes, while on the other hand it accepts total uncertainty and even pessimism at what the future may hold. This is something that cover version always seem to fail to capture, or at least they fail to strike this balance in a delicate enough way.

All I can do is recommend this to everyone. On the surface, it's really a very simple piece of music with fairly minimal structural and instrumental choices. However, in its purest essence it is a beautiful document of the struggle felt by all people on their journey through a life that they did not choose for themselves and that causes them to feel vulnerable. This is never far from my turntable, and I will most definitely still be playing it when I come to die.

Tracklist:

1) Ceremony
2) In a Lonely Place

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

aspidistrafly - I Hold a Wish for You [2008]



Artist: aspidistrafly
Album: I Hold a Wish for You
Label: Kitchen. Records

This is the debut release from Singaporean group aspidistrafly, named in part after the book Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The group is April Lee and Ricks Ang, a photographer and graphic designer respectively, who, after starting their web/graphic design company Kitchen., founded a record label to run parallel with their endeavours in design. While still a burgeoning label, Kitchen. has become known for its small roster of great ambient artists, boasting names like Fjordne and Haruka Nakamura, and its beautiful packaging, which is no doubt down to the label's close ties with the art and design. Having designed sites for the aforementioned Haruka Nakamura as well as other prominent artists like Celer, the label shows a strong tie to a distinctive aesthetic, most likely inspired by the balanced and placid nature of their catalogue.

I Hold a Wish for You is aspidistrafly's first, and thus far only release. Although firmly rooted in the aesthetics of contemporary digital ambient music, the group's sound strays far from the abstract nature of ambient music, into more pop-based territory - and yes I do use the word pop in a fairly loose sense. While many of the tracks are instrumentals, mixing tiny pops and clicks with field recordings and manipulated instrumentation, some of the tracks are fully-fledged, well-structured songs. Some of the highlights of the album are these moments where April's stunning voice floats effortlessly over gently plucked guitar strings and reverberating pianos, switching back and forth between English and other languages. A lot of the time the songs just rise out of the meandering instrumentals unexpectedly, bringing with them oceanic reverb waves and synthesiser swells, even accompanied by light drumming at times. To me, their sound is totally unique, as I can't say that I know of anyone coming at dream pop from the same angle as them; being primarily an ambient group that uses pop to punctuate their albums. Certainly, Piana has done ambient pop music before, but it's not the same at all; while she uses an ambient aesthetic mainly as a sonic backdrop for her sugar-sweet tunes, aspidistrafly have a completely different angle of attack on the whole thing.

Overall, I Hold a Wish for You is a unique and beautiful take on dream pop. Highlights include the ubiquitous 'On the Summer Solstice', a suitably vague tale of love, which sees April breathing out the very atmosphere of summer into your ears, behind which lies Ang's stunning, minimal guitarwork, at times sounding like a portable radio on your dashboard singing you to sleep. Closing track '花火', translated by my room-mate to mean 'Fireworks', is a piece which seems to capture the glaring heat of summer with a romantic eye, combining sustained acoustic instruments with heavily processed guitars to bring the album to a majestic end.

The stunning packaging for the release, designed by the duo and featuring a series of grainy, saturated analogue photos by singer April Lee adds to the atmosphere conjured up by the music. Coming in an accordion-style, fold-out paper case, the design shows not only the great creative minds behind the group, but also the attention to detail on packaging and designs that will no doubt become a trademark of the label in years to come.

Tracklist:

1) Candlescape
2) Moonlight Shadow
3) Common Colors in the Air
4) Sampling Atmosphere
5) On the Summer Solstice
6) Porcelain Sky Wink
7) Sui
8) Endless Dreamless
9) 花火