Anna Calvi – ‘Hunter’

When a new album arrives from an artist that you’ve basically fallen in love with, there’s a huge tension and anticipation at work. Will it not just match what’s come before, but improve on it? Or will it break the spell that’s fed your obsession up to this point? That’s how I felt about ‘Hunter’ arriving after the years-long break since ‘One Breath’. Barring an EP of cover versions and a moment when Calvi seemed to be involved with the fashion industry more than music, I was nervous about what would fill that silence.

Hype is a dodgy little drug, to be consumed with great care. The first interviews set out Calvi’s stall: the album was a statement about freedom of gender and sexuality. That was a message I could get behind: in fact one that chimes with me intensely. However, rightly or wrongly, I harbour instinctive scepticism about musicians who were not previously outspoken discovering politics. If you’re Sleaford Mods, it’s there in the musical DNA from the outset. Before Hunter’s release, I worried about how the message Calvi had decided to convey would  sit with her music. Out of context from the rest of the album, ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out of My Boy’ sounded a bit on the nose. In addition I needed a few listens to adapt to what sounded at first like Eighties production bombast – the crashing drums, the stadium-sized vocal reverb.

However, another bigger however: when I listened to the entire album properly, it’s clear Calvi’s voice is still present, and even more commanding than before. Her ‘statement’ runs through her voice and guitar like her blood.

That said, the first track ‘As A Man’ doesn’t quite convince:  it’s musically low-key, almost as if it’s meant to bridge other, bigger tunes later in the album. “Don’t Beat The Boy…” is the obvious choice of opener, but maybe that’s the point. This album is deftly sequenced, building steadily and with implicit confidence. Once title track ‘Hunter’ gently but firmly pulls you close, it’s clear ‘As A Man’ serves as an overture to the whole. From that point on we’re led through a musical progression with no excuse to step away.

Beginning with a series of cinematic images of Calvi finding power in adorning herself before heading out on the prowl, ‘Hunter’ surges and sighs like a lost Bond theme. In fact, several tracks seem to be waving a calling card at Barbara Broccoli, murmuring “Call me, forget that ‘relevant’ Stormzy/Dua Lipa duet you were banking on”. Ending like waves rolling onto a Nassau beach, it allows ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’ to strut out of the surf toward its rightful place in the scheme of things. The first anthem – that word used without qualification or irony – of the album, cheerfully it storms the ramparts, fluttering standard aloft, in aid of Joy As An Act Of Resistance (thanks, Idles). This is a song for just after the sexual/gender revolution, the border checkpoints open, Calvi hurling vocal rather than guitar fireworks into the night sky. ‘Indies Or Paradise’ absorbs the previous song’s afterglow, using it as fuel to alternately chug through the jungle or soar stratospherically above swooning crowds, with just one star-shell of caterwauling fret-botherage.

With a sound looser and and more expansive than before, still there’s no bluster or hollow, unearned bombast. Clocking in at just over forty three minutes, ‘Hunter’ fits neatly on the sides of a vinyl album and doesn’t outstay its welcome. Calvi and her fellow players haven’t lost any of their capacity for slow-burning tension and whip-tight theatrical dynamics. The lyrics are pared down, staying out of the way of the music, allowing Calvi’s voice room to mediate them into another instrument in service of the song. The lyrics are the script, the music the director allowing Calvi to find her light and come right down the lens at you.

To these ears at least, as with previous albums, ‘Hunter’ draws inspiration from then blows kisses back at the ghostly reverb and valve-state twang of John Barry, Ennio Morricone and Angelo Badalamenti.  Other influences/loves on show are the late Black Star himself – is that a cheeky little reference when ‘Chain’ is pronounced ‘Ch-ch-chain!’ – and ‘Wish’ features high-pitched breathy gasps straight off Suicide’s ‘Ghost Rider’.

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Sometimes it’s the imperfections of a voice that makes it distinctive. At the same time, there’s a place for a technique and discipline. Hitting a note exactly can pierce the listener’s heart: Calvi’s clarity and power first overwhelm then boost you skywards, or slay and disintegrate with a trailing, wounding sigh. She clearly loves the physical act of singing and is determined to use that faculty to make you feel whatever she’s feeling. Possessed of an enviable vocal range, here she never sounds like she’s straining. Perhaps one reason is that there’s less resort to the ultra-deep, rather theatrical bass tone from the first two albums. Like an actor using an accent different to their own, it’s twice as much work, maintaining the voice whilst giving a performance on top of it. Maybe not having to dig for those notes allows her even greater precision and emotional clarity.

‘Hunter’ gives voice to visceral, beautiful dreams and wishes for physical and emotional liberty. It’s rare for an album to capture my attention so completely from the first listen. I’m really looking forward to hearing these songs ‘in the flesh’, in a couple of weeks time. Here’s hoping the wait for Calvi’s next work won’t be quite so long.

 

 

 

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Whatever Happened To Bob Roberts?

Tim Robbins’ 1992 film directing debut ‘Bob Roberts’ casts an angry eye over the resurgent American right, plus the role of  USA news media in political campaigning.  It captures a moment just after the awful certainties of the Cold War have collapsed, and just before new enemies are found in the Middle East, in the first Gulf War. It also exists at a point where traditional news media still hold sway, barring the occasional green screen laptop. Looking at the film now, post-internet, post-War On Terror and post-Trump, there is a kind of innocence on display. While ‘Bob Roberts’ fails to predict where US politics stands today (who could?) the core themes of the film still ring true, a continuous thread underlying the current sense of constant, present chaos.

Through the frame of a BBC documentary, presented by Terry Manchester (Brian Murray as a slightly old-fashioned journalist/film maker in the mode of Charles Wheeler) the film follows the Senate election race of Republican candidate Bob Roberts Jnr. Rather like Larry Levy, the bete noire of Robbins’ previous role in Robert Altman’s ‘The Player’, Bob Roberts is a ‘comer’, getting up in the face of the political establishment. Facing this tightly wound whirlwind is his Democrat opponent Senator Brickley Paiste, played by Gore Vidal as the kind of bowtie and braces wearing southern gentleman you might expect to see fighting a civil rights case in a Mississippi courtroom.

An early defining act of Bob Roberts’ character is his rejection of his liberal upbringing and enrolment in a military school, funded by forging signatures on his mother’s cheque book. Emerging rich from 1980s Wall Street, he appears fully formed, ready to run for Senate. The medium for his message is reactionary-themed country and folk songs. In an age before the internet, the songs serve as his viral media, embedding his ideas in a growing conservative audience. Sharp-suited and smiling, with blithe confidence Bob Roberts steals and inverts the image and message of another Bob, the ultimate Sixties counter culture icon, Bob Dylan. Roberts’ war cry is torn straight from Mr Zimmerman’s lyric book, then graffitied: “Times Are Changin’…Back

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Roberts knows how to get under the skin of liberal politicians, and make them look powerless and angry. When the left wing comics on ‘Cutting Edge Live’ – an avatar for ‘Saturday Night Live’ where the Bob Roberts character originated – are landed with a tall conservative cuckoo in their nest, they lose their sense of humour and fail at their job of satire. Instead they resort to joke-free diatribes and when that fails, pull the plugs on the broadcast. Roberts’ opponents reel in the face of his complete and unapologetic rejection of what they consider a settled post-war political and social contract. They take for granted a set of values that a section of America no longer shares, or perhaps never did. Consequently, they’ve forgotten how to fight to preserve those values.

Although in front of the documentary camera he’s eloquent about Roberts’ failings, out on the campaign trail, Brickley Paiste looks sluggish and unaware, unable to match his opponent’s punches. This is made plain during a TV debate, with Bob Roberts zeroing in on his audience’s fears and insecurities. He uses second person singular pronouns, allowing people listening to imagine he’s addressing them in particular. “Why can’t you get that job, the fast car you want?” ‘Can’t’ is the other key word. It implies by absence what’s stopping them. Of course Roberts means all the other people not encompassed by ‘you’: the lazy, the intellectual, the liberal, the foreign. Meanwhile, Paiste talks third person plural, attempting to communicate with an ill-defined cloud of ‘the American people’, with generalised entreaties: “Let’s talk about housing, let’s talk about welfare”, ending with a vague “Let us be real together”. Of course, ‘real’ is the last thing the voters want, that would mean facing up to their problems. Who wants to do that when Bob Roberts can show you exactly who’s to blame. It’s you versus them, and Bob’s on ‘your’ side.

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The one character in the film who seems to have the resources to fight Roberts is reporter John Alijah ‘Bugs’ Raplin (Giancarlo Esposito). These days, Bugs would be running a news blog and proudly describe himself as working outside the #MainStreamMedia. At first dismissed as irrelevant, then fobbed off, he begins to expose evidence of CIA-led shenanigans by Roberts’ backer Lukas Hart III, a twitchy Alan Rickman. It’s then the Roberts campaign decides to fix him, setting up Bugs as the patsy in a false-flag assassination attempt that saves Roberts’ campaign. Freed when it becomes clear he had nothing to do with the fake shooting, Bugs’ eventual murder by a ‘patriot’ Roberts supporter, and the earlier beating up of Democrat protesters calls forward to the riotous violence and murder in Charlottesville.

The narrative frame of the documentary allows Robbins some distance from his despicable protagonist, enabling his opponents to address the audience more or less directly, rather than trusting that Roberts will be hung by his own words. This is quite different to the uncomfortable, unfiltered intimacy with venal film executive Griffin Mill that Robbins had just portrayed in ‘The Player’. Had Robbins given his anti-hero free rein, this would have been almost as black a comedy. Roberts’ un-heroic journey is pretty much successful, barring a moment near the end where his faked paralysis after the ‘shooting’ is revealed by the documentary camera. At the time of the film’s release, Tim Robbins balked at the idea of a soundtrack album, fearing that the Christian right would appropriate the tunes, stripped of their irony. Later in 2010 he relented, playing the songs alongside others on tour as Tim Robbins and the Rogues Gallery, perhaps having concluded that American conservatives could produce far worse by themselves and that by now the joke was on everybody else.

Robbins’ direction doesn’t quite reach the pure verite style needed to embed the satire without the commentary. The comedic tone leans more towards ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ than say, Armando Iannucci’s ‘Veep’. Robbins makes full use of Roberts’ theft and flipping of Dylan’s career: as well as modified album covers, the film also reproduces the moment from ‘Don’t Look Back’ (also mocked in ‘This Is Spinal Tap’) of Dylan getting lost in the bowels of a concert venue.

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Tim Robbins’ view of Bob Roberts the conservative villain is very much of its time, but also of its maker. Roberts comes over like nothing so much as a white, conservative Obama figure. He’s clean cut, stylish, intelligent and educated. Calm and determined in the face of opposition, he doesn’t bluster or ramble. Even so, it’s no failure of the imagination that Robbins couldn’t pitch this character for his film (twenty five words or less):

A philandering heir and failed businessman turned reality TV star appeals to the destitute working classes and storms the White House.

If Tim Robbins had written that as his central character, he’d probably have been laughed off the studio lot. Roberts is corrupt, dishonest and bigoted, but he’s a tightly controlled act, unlike the ricocheting dum-dum bullet that is the current USA president. Whereas Bob Roberts knows the art of the dog whistle, Forty-Five just goes right up and wedges his nose in the dog’s behind.

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The black swan gliding unseen in the future was the disillusionment of ordinary people, not with post-Sixties values, but with the entire political process. With the certainty of nemesis, they meet a candidate who isn’t even interested in being elected, but goes through the motions because it seems like a laugh and might improve his profile. The more I think, the more it makes sense that Roberts isn’t an avatar for the likes of the Tangerine Destroyer, but a traditional Republican figure like Mike Pence. Roberts might have been wrong-footed by the Toddler-In-Chief, but he would be biding his time for the inevitable neutron star implosion.

Perhaps that’s why viewed today, ‘Bob Roberts’ works best as comedy. Anything with politics in it risks being labelled ‘satire’, but the film addresses its subject directly, not via metaphor. The elements that were perhaps intended as outlandish and speculative, e.g. Roberts’ musical  career, no longer appear at all unlikely.  If we accept the definition of comedy as ‘tragedy plus time’, then with hindsight we can see the Roberts campaign as Wile E Coyote rushing confidently forwards off a cliff edge, gravity yet to take hold. Triumphantly, Bob Roberts grasps what he imagines to be the future, blissfully and tragically unaware of the almighty pratfall that’s yet to come.

Those Of A Nervous Disposition

Ghost Stories – SPOILER review

The theatrical production of Ghost Stories was created by Andy Nyman and League of Gentlemen alumnus Jeremy Dyson. It followed in the footsteps of the stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman In Black’, being another theatrical supernatural thriller with the express aim of making its audience jump out of their skins at exactly the same point. The host of a paranormal investigation show, ‘Professor’ Philip Goodman (Nyman) is presented with three cases that tested the rationalist point of view of his hero, paranormal debunker Charles Cameron.

The jump scare is the simplest and easiest type of cinematic shock. It’s a predictable mechanism, but that anticipation is part of the appeal. Before the audience reaches the actual scare there is the obligatory misdirection and false shock, nicknamed a ‘bus’ after it was demonstrated so influentially by Jacques Tournier’s ‘Cat People’. By now viewers are fully aware this is a fake out, and director and audience play a game about how long they will have to wait. How many times will the film maker tease them by inflating and puncturing the suspense?  Even so, diminishing returns set in a long time ago and these days the scare itself is usually submerged beneath a deafening orchestral sting, and probably a scream and a sub-bass thump, regardless of whether there’s any cause for it onscreen.

In ‘Ghost Stories’ the jump scares are well executed and unlike many other modern horrors (e.g. the noisy, hyperactive ‘Winchester’) they are properly earned. The film makes the audience wait well beyond the point where they – educated in the deliberate deceptions of pace – would expect them to occur. The camera lingers behind a character’s POV, following them reluctantly. Shallow depth of field means that even as the spectres are gradually revealed, they remain blurred and more horrific to the unrestrained imagination. The camera is used as a proxy for the audience, subliminally warning them not to look full on at the ghosts.

Whilst the film keeps busy exploiting the potential of the three hauntings for scares, it works pretty well. It’s only when the underlying arc of Goodman’s character begins to take centre stage that things  lose focus and perhaps confuse the audience expectations. The film uses a portmanteau structure, borrowed from Hammer and Amicus anthology horror films, but most directly from the Ealing Studios supernatural chiller ‘Dead of Night’. Whilst it aids Goodman’s journey, to some extent it denies the ghost stories proper resolution. There is no revelation of past crimes or exorcism of secrets. What do these ghosts want? On top of this, there is an opening flashback sequence which goes to great lengths to illustrate the hero’s disbelief stems from the effect of an oppressive orthodox Jewish background. But although the story references anti-semitism later on, this initial sequence feels detached and unnecessary to justify the narrator’s rational and humanist views. It almost feels like the introduction to a completely different film, or maybe it’s a piece of misdirection, considering what is to come.

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Where ‘Ghost Stories’ does score is in its use of settings and the atmosphere they conjure. The ghosts come from the recent past or the present day. No Victorian grey ladies here. With just a brief excursion into the woods for a bit of arboreal dread, decaying seaside towns, claustrophobic suburban housing and discarded industrial spaces show the dreadful work of time and the fragility of human endeavour. The victims of the hauntings are alone in the dark, clutching a single piece of failing technology – phone, walkie talkie or torch – that substitutes for the guttering gothic candelabra to protect them from the dark.

These men, and they are all men, are in differing ways isolated, wounded, trapped in their environments, almost ghosts themselves. In fact, all of the main cast are white men. There is only one speaking part for a BAME actor. As the story goes on, by accident or design, it seems to home in on the fears and frailties of white British men. Even more telling, the only significant roles for women are the various spectres and demons the haunted men encounter. The men are assailed by the spirits of dead orphan girls, still born children, and the screaming spectre of a wife who dies in childbirth. Were it not for the fauns of the forest, it’d be a full set. There’s nothing wrong with exploring specific male fears, in fact it’s extremely timely, but how much is conscious and deliberate? The stated theme of ‘Ghost Stories’ is how people create their own ghosts via the guilt they carry through life, but the isolation, emotional constipation and functional redundancy of modern men comes out far stronger, even as the plot yanks the rug from under the viewer and makes us doubt the truth of everything we’ve just been watching.

A frustrated Goodman returns to face his mentor, dismissing the supposed paranormal case histories as the product of life bearing down on frail humans, whereupon onscreen reality itself is ripped in two and the narrator finds himself heading for a reckoning that’s much closer to home. He’s actually on life support in a hospital bed, a victim of ‘locked in syndrome’, after an abortive suicide attempt. The stories the viewer has just watched are in fact the product of Goodman’s imprisoned imagination working on his surroundings as he lies paralysed in bed. On first viewing it appears to fit the overall theme of the rationalist, disbelieving paranormal investigator, and confirms his worldview, but with a dramatic irony. He has gone from sceptic to doubter, only for it to be revealed that this debate is being acted out in his head.  Does he attempt suicide because he has been disabused of his rational worldview, or because he has found it leaves a spiritual void he can’t fill? It’s a point the screenplay doesn’t articulate well enough. Somehow it calls back to the home movie exposition at the start of the film, but not in any clear manner.

Part of the thrill of a ghost story is the audience allowing themselves to entertain the idea that the supernatural might be real, and enjoying the fear that provokes. The ending to ‘Ghost Stories’ appears to stamp all over that, like our hero invading the stage to blow the cover of a fraudulent psychic. It leaves behind a slight feeling of being cheated by a cleverly executed trick. It’s not ‘it was all a dream’, but at the same time the filmmakers appear to enjoy the technique of the bait and switch more than what it could have said about their characters.