The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

Entries for 'Aidan Curran'


'Un vague à l'âme' say the French in their wonderfully poetic way with expressions of feelings. A vagueness in the soul? Or a wave, like a spell of bad weather or the sea breaking on the shores of the soul? Anyway, it's what the French call the blues - not the type of music, but the type of feeling.

Jeanne MoreauThere's a Parisian way for everything, including feeling blue. After work you wander round town, listlessly down some boulevard or other. In a café or brasserie, tourists speak slow, loud English to streetwise waiters and you hope they don't recognise you as one of them.

The metro is full of tired, sad-eyed office workers going home; the Parisian working rhythm is metro-boulot-dodo (metro-job-sleep). In each station, drunks bed down on benches. Everyone seems down on their luck, daydreaming.

A famous scene in Louis Malle's 'Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud' (Lift To The Scaffold) captures the vague à l'âme perfectly. You may know it: Jeanne Moreau traipses along la rue, dawdling in front of shop windows and weaving around strolling couples. The soundtrack - sad, worn-out trumpeting - is by Miles Davis, from the period when he held court in Saint-Germain, once the jazz strip of Paris but now a rosary of boutique after boutique.

Both the film and soundtrack are marvellous. Here's the scene we were talking about:

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Critically-acclaimed French conceptual electronica producer Hector Zazou doesn't look too pleased with your CLUAS Foreign Correspondent (Paris).

Hector ZazouIt's April 2007 in the bar of La Flèche d'Or, the French capital's popular alt-music venue, just after a concert by Nina Hynes. In a sudden fit of professionalism, your Paris correspondent has decided to get a few words (and, more importantly, the set-list) from Ireland's astral-pop princess. We spot her in the bar, deep in conversation with someone or other but we resolve not to let social etiquette get in the way of our duty to the CLUAS readership.

As politely as possible, your blogger butts in to ask Nina some questions. The guy she's talking with (youthful-looking fiftysomething, bespectacled, neatly-trimmed grey hair and beard) looks a bit taken aback, but still offers us a polite 'bonsoir' as Hynes introduces him.

His name, Hector Zazou, is familiar to us. His 1994 album 'Songs From The Cold Seas' is something of a cult classic - electronic treatments of folk songs from Alaska, Siberia and the Arctic regions, sung by the likes of Bjork, John Cale, Suzanne Vega and Siouxsie - as well as astounding vocal performances by native traditional singers. Fans of Sigur Ros and their gorgeous icy bleakness probably already know and love it. Zazou recounts the geographical and technical challenges of making this album (for instance, why you should never record an album in the Hebrides, unless you fancy spending all day in a toilet) in a fascinating 1995 interview with Sound On Sound Magazine.

How come he's chatting to Nina Hynes? Well, she sung a track called 'Under My Wing' on Zazou's 2003 album 'Strong Currents', as part of an all-female vocal line-up including the likes of Jane Birkin, Laurie Anderson and Lisa Gerrard. It's a matter of speculation as to which of them (if any) owns the female bottom that graces one version of the album's cover.

Hector Zazou Corps ElectriquesIn 1998, between 'Songs From The Cold Seas' and 'Strong Currents', Zazou recorded and released an album of traditional Celtic music entitled 'Lights In The Dark, featuring vocals by Katie McMahon, Breda Mayock and Lasairfhiona Ni Chonaola. The album sleeve does not feature any ladybuttocks, but rather a glowing crucifix on a black background that bears a remarkable similarity to the cover of Justice's 2007 debut long-player.

Zazou is back in the news with the release of his new album, 'Corps Electriques' (left). Recorded in the studios of Radio France in Paris, and leaning towards electro post-rock with its distortion and dark vibes, the record features former Daisy Chainsaw singer Katie Jane Garside, Norwegian jazzman Niels Petter-Molvaer, American singer-songer Lone Kent and occasional R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin.

It's an impressive piece of soundscaping. You can listen to tracks on the album's dedicated MySpace page.

If Nina Hynes doesn't feature this time around, that may be because Hector Zazou just didn't get a chance to ask her. Perhaps something - or someone - got in his way.

Here's a clip of Zazou and Bjork in the studio, recording 'Visur Vatnsenda-Rosu' for the 'Songs For The Cold Seas' album:

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We're not too enthusiastic about French indie's current flavour of the month, The Dø, back from last weekend's Eurosonic festival to blanket media coverage and radio playlisting in France.

The DodozBy contrast, we'd much rather rave about The Dodoz (right), who even by their name alone are twice the band that The Dø are. We don't have to cut and paste obscure letters to write their nom de rock, or worry if we're pronouncing it correctly. And that 'z' must count for something too.

From Toulouse, they make a joyous indie-punk-pop racket. The foursome first came to prominence last September when they supported Siouxsie at her album showcase in (of all places) the Eiffel Tower.

Since then they've been snapped up by Nude Records (home of Suede) and their first single will be released in the UK in March. 'Do You Like Boys?' features lead singer Geraldine answering her own question in unequivocal fashion: "I HATE BOYS!" Let all French pop singles in 2008 be as glorious as this.

Tonight in the French capital The Dodoz are supporting those irritating English airplay-squatters The Hoosiers (bleurgh) at La Maroquinerie. Fortunately, in February they'll have better luck with their headliners, for they'll be opening for Babyshambles (whose 'Shotters Nation' was a fine album) in Paris and Lyon. After that, their own headline shows and world domination.

No news yet of Irish releases or dates for The Dodoz; we'll pass on any info ASAP. In the meantime, have a listen to some tracks on their MySpace page. Here they are on video, performing 'Do You Like Boys?' live. Just give them 30 seconds to get ready, okay?

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Halfway down the Champs-Elysées there's a huge statue of Charles de Gaulle. It captures the General in his glorious moment as he strode down the grand old boulevard on 26 August 1945, the symbolic act which confirmed the liberation of Paris from the Nazi forces. On the statue's plinth are engraved his famous words from that day: "Paris! Paris outragée! Paris brisée! Paris martyrisée! Mais Paris libérée!" (Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyrised! But Paris free!). It's an evocative blend of suffering and triumph, of tragic history and glorious destiny - and it's almost impossible to read those words without hearing in your mind's ear the opening bars of 'Je Ne Regrette Rien' as sung by Edith Piaf. Like de Gaulle, Piaf's singing more than symbolises France - it seems to embody it.

Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in 'La Vie En Rose' / 'La Môme'No doubt there'll be resurgent interest in Piaf now, thanks to Marion Cotillard's Golden Globe-winning portrayal of her in 'La Vie En Rose'. Strangely, that's not the film's title in France - here it's called 'La Mome', which means anything from 'the kid' to 'the chick' to 'the sweetheart'.

Cynics may sneer that Piaf's melodramatic life makes for lazy cinema; just point the camera at her squalid upbringing, triumphant success, tragic romance with the ill-fated Marcel Cernan (and his own glamorous world of '50s middleweight boxing) and the last years of sad decline, and the story will tell itself. And isn't Hollywood currently obsessed with rewarding biopic roles that are often just glorified impersonations? With beautiful actresses making themselves up as unglamorous, long-suffering heroines? Despite all that, Cotillard is a fine actress and fully deserves international recognition.

Piaf certainly merits lasting worldwide fame - and her singing is matched by her acting. That is to say, few other singers bring such dramatic range and emotional strength to their performances - and (even more rare) Piaf did it in both English and French with nothing lost in translation. Her most famous international songs are 'Je Ne Regrette Rien/No Regrets' and 'La Vie En Rose', but surely her greatest performance is 'Hymne A L'Amour' (sometimes known in English as 'If You Love Me' or 'Hymn To Love'). It begins with the singer reserved and hesitant with emotion, then moves into a middle section of self-questioning and fearful uncertainty, before ending with a powerful declaration of love that's as triumphant as de Gaulle's march down the Champs-Elysées.

Wouldn't it be strange if Cotillard's Piaf were to battle with Cate Blanchett's Dylan for an Oscar? Should Cate's Bob-job beat out Piaf, we can just console ourselves that there are greater prizes than shiny baubles. Here's 'Hymne A L'Amour' - if you're watching in your workplace, now would be a good time to pretend that you've got dust in your eye:

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Eurosonic 2008The annual Eurosonic festival takes place this weekend (10-12 January) in Groningen in the Netherlands, as part of the Noorderslag music conference. Given the pan-continental vibe of the whole thing, it's appropriate that it kicks off with a concert by that all-inclusive Scandinavian pop collective, I'm From Barcelona.

As well as being a massive industry symposium, Eurosonic features live performances by over 250 new and emerging acts from across the continent, chosen either from applicants or those nominated to perform by the music community of their home country.

For instance, 2FM are sending Cathy Davey and Republic Of Loose on our behalf, and both Si Schroeder and Halves have also been chosen to represent Ireland. So, four fine acts representing us and themselves at Europe's most important and prestigious music showcase. G'wan Oirland!!!!

France will have 12 acts at Eurosonic - and, as you'd expect, France's position as market leader in electronica will be emphasised during the showcase. Irish music fans may know TTC, who played at The Village in Dublin last May. That is, a small number of Irish music fans - as Nialler9 tells it, there were only around 70 or 80 punters on the night, many of whom were falling-around drunk. Anyway, TTC contributors Para One and Orgasmic will DJ at a special night for Teki Latex's label, Institubes, which will also include turns from DJs Bobmo and Surkin.

Readers of this blog (a bit classier and more numerous than those TTC fans, we're glad to say) will recognise the name of electro-disco-poppeuse Yelle, whose colourful and hyperactive 'Pop-Up' featured in our list of Best French Albums of 2007.

Other French electro at Eurosonic '08 includes the Krautrock-influenced Zombie-Zombie, the hardcore techno of DJ and producer Leonard de Leonard, Greek-born singer Olga Kouklaki and the Latino-flavoured P18 project of Tom Darnal, formerly of Manu Chao's old band Mano Negra.

The DoAs for the indie kids, Franco-Finnish duo The Dø (pronounced 'doh' like the first note of the musical scale) are currently enjoying massive radio exposure in France with their debut single 'On My Shoulders'.

Singer Olivia Merilahti's blackboard-scraping voice may grate the nerves, but in a post-Blunt world anything goes. Expect to hear them (pictured left) on your Eire-waves during 2008.

The two lads in AaRON (that's how it must be written) were shortlisted for the 2007 Prix Constantin, France's equivalent of the Choice and Mercury prizes. They scored a sizeable hit with their maudlin piano ballad 'Lili', which will probably be a big hit with the SHUSH!-ers at Groningen and beyond.

Acoustic singer-songer Soko gained a cult following with her song 'I'll Kill Her', which became something of an internet hit in France last year. She can't sing and the song is a half-written shambles... but it seems that a venomous chorus is enough to sway large numbers of French indie fans. 

To pick one of that French contingent for international success in deux mille huit, our preference would be Yelle or the TTC lads... but realism dictates that we go for The Do. Doh! We mean, The Dø. Anyway, here's them live in Bordeaux playing 'On My Shoulders'. It has already featured in a French TV ad for stationery, but we hear it more as the soundtrack to some US series where the happy-go-lucky heroine is having boy trouble:

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In France these days it's nothing but Sarko, Sarko, Sarko. The French president seems to be on the cover of every magazine, usually a flattering portrait with a sycophantic headline like 'The Sarkozy Enigma' or 'Sarkozy: How Does He Do It?' or 'Sarkozy: Behind The Scenes'. Even if you don't read these magazines, their posters are plastered on the kiosks that line the larger Paris boulevards. It's all unavoidable.

All this Sarko-mania stepped up a gear with news of his romance with former model and singer Eva Brauni - sorry, we mean Carla Bruni. It now seems that they will get married on 9 February; will it be a national holiday? The ceremony live on TV? And will Carla's new album, due for release later this year, be played on all state occasions?

But the future French First Lady is not the only pop star in the family - it seems that we've been listening to the Sarkozy clan's musical efforts for quite a while without realising it. French press reports that Pierre Sarkozy, 23, works as a rap producer under the name of Mosey.

Even better, Mosey/Sarko Jr (left, with Timbaland) has produced tracks for French rapper Poison, who happens to write hardcore anti-Sarkozy lyrics such as "anti-Sarko / anti-right / Nicolas don't you hear? / We're anti-you".

France has a piece of legislation on its statute books, the French Press Freedom Law of 1881, which outlaws insults to the President. The last known enforcement of this law was in the mid-60s, when a heckler was arrested for booing General de Gaulle as he drove along the Champs-Elysées in the Bastille Day parade.

While Interior Minister, just until his election as President, Nicolas Sarkozy is believed to have initiated the prosecution of several hardcore French rappers for the violent anti-police nature of their lyrics.

In one high-profile case during 2006 and early 2007, two French MPs of Sarkozy's UMP party brought charges of incitement to hatred and sexism against a rapper called Monsieur R, whose single 'FranSSe' featured a video with topless dancers (female, of course) in front of the national flag, and whose lyrics inferred that France was a 'salope' (slut). The twin capital S in the song's title reflects the track's comparison of France's governing class with the Nazi regime. Monsieur R also raps that he 'pisses on Napoleon and General de Gaulle'.

Both charges were thrown out of court. It remains to be seen if young Sarkozy will face similar court action for helping those who diss his old man, president of France. 

(On a slightly-related point of freedom of expression, we sincerely recommend Aoife McIndieHour's excellent article on an imprisoned Saudi blogger, based on Aoife's own experiences of growing up in Saudi Arabia)

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Brrrrr, etc. It's bbbbloody ffffreezing here in Paris - certainly no weather to be standing around outside cafés and bars. But that's the predicament of France's smokers, now that the new smoking ban is in force.

Café 203 in Lyon

As your blogger (finger on the French pulse) predicted, there's been a vociferous minority of discontented fumeurs and fumeuses. One Lyon watering-hole, Cafe 203 (right), has declared itself a 'resistant' smoking zone, walls decorated with Warhol-esque screen prints of full ashtrays so as to invoke the defence that it's in the name of culture. But the regulation has been broadly accepted and most die-hard smokers are grudgingly accepting the new regime.

One drawback is that the beautiful streets of Paris are now crowded with smokers, their smoke and their stubbed-out fag-butts. Pushing our way to Gare Saint-Lazare this evening was like pushing our way through a crowded pre-2008 Paris café.

The smoking ban is still the talk of France - that and the Sarko-Carla love story. Potentially capitalising on this cigarette-centric attention is a rather fine 8-piece group from Lille with a name that's topical (for all you multi-linguist Francophile pop fans out there) but terrible.

Roken is DodelijkRoken Is Dodelijk (left) is what they're called. French music fans who've ever smoked in Amsterdam [Careful now! - CLUAS Legal Department] will recognise this as the anti-smoking warning on Dutch cigarette packets. It means 'Smoking Is Deadly' - that's 'deadly' not in the Dublin sense of "Bleedin' rapid, Outspan!" but in the original meaning of 'may induce mortality'. (On a connected linguistic note, hip young French people use 'mortel' to mean 'deadly'/'brilliant' too)

Happily, their songwriting is better than their naming. Their eponymous first
EP came out recently and it's stuffed with brilliant
acoustic indie-folk-pop tunes. You can check them out at the band's very witty (in French) MySpace page (Gerard Houllier and Jacques Brel, amongst others, have something to say about the band). Here's the video for 'Good Enough':

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Bonne nouvelle année! The new year heralds a new era for the cultural life of France, as a distinctive sight and smell disappears from Paris’ famous cafés.

Today (1 January) France’s smoking ban comes into force – it is now illegal to light up in restaurants and bars, as is already the case in Ireland and Italy (Berlin is introducing a similar ban today as well).

The new regulation wipes out a characteristic image of Paris – the hazy Left Bank cafés where the likes of Sartre, Camus and de Beauvoir (right) would philosophise amid clouds of Gaulois and Gitane fumes. The smoking and philosophising can continue, of course, outside on the terrasse.

It will be interesting to see the rate of adherence to, and enforcement of, the new law. The typical French brasserie, or restaurant-bar, has its own cigarette counter (remember the hypochondriac tobacconist, left, in ‘Amélie’?), and a customer will usually buy his/her packet of fags or pouch of tobacco and then stay for a coffee or a drink.

As Irish bars found in 2003 when our own ban was introduced, smaller Paris bars and cafés don’t always have terrace space outdoors – and anyway, the older clientèle don’t like to sit at tables but prefer to stand at the bar, where prices are cheaper and the ambience is better. Unless their older customers change their ways, some proprietors will obviously suffer.

The Irish smoking-ban experience doesn’t provide a good analogy – we’re a young country, less settled in our ways and more used to adapting. France has always been one of the more traditionalist and self-content countries of Europe, so change comes more slowly and painfully here. Many French people continue to calculate prices in francs and the old currency still appears on receipts and payslips, six years after it ceased to exist. Unlike Ireland, where the euro, smoking ban and plastic bag levy were all quickly accepted, France won’t accept such a fundamental lifestyle change without some pain and protest. Jacques le Frenchman tends to be militant when his personal rights and creature comforts are challenged.

But Sarkozy’s France is showing an appetite for progress and intolerance for traditionalist intransigence. A protest march by tobacconists in November (right) passed off almost unperceived due to strike fatigue after the autumn’s transport stoppages, which themselves were less well supported than in previous years.

And the smoking ban has already been in place in offices and other workplaces since earlier this year, so many people have by now become adapted to popping outside for a quick drag.

The smoking ban also affects France’s live music industry, as concert venues fall under the terms of the regulations. As in Ireland in 2003, the hope is that new punters will be attracted (back) to smoke-free shows. Club-owners aim to share the fresh-air dividend that restaurateurs expect to reap.
Some Paris venues have already been smoke-free for a while. La Maroquinerie, one of our favourite concert spots, has no-smoking signs around its music space – though this was due to health and safety considerations, as the venue is a converted cellar with limited ventilation. But cigarette-craving punters there can still head upstairs to the Maroquinerie’s open-air beer-garden/restaurant space.

Other popular venues, like La Fleche d'Or, won’t be easily able to provide smoking space – but punters will hardly forgo seeing their favourite act because of the smoking ban. Cinemas and theatres are already non-smoking, so it’s not going to be the culture-shock some pessimists fear.

And the fresh air may attract new concert-goers. All things considered, smoke-free music venues should prove to be more of an opportunity than a setback for the Paris live scene.

But then, we would say that - your blogger doesn’t smoke.

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Who was the first international leader seen by new French president Nicolas Sarkozy following his inauguration in June?

Chancellor Merkel? Nein! President Bush? Nope! Prime Minister Blair or Brown? Sorry, old chap!

The answer? CLUAS founder and editor Eoghan O’Neill.

This is absolutely true: after the inauguration ceremony at the Elysée Palace, Sarko’s cavalcade was driving up the Champs-Elysées. Just before reaching the Arc de Triomphe for a wreath-laying ceremony, the pint-sized president (right) suddenly hopped out of his state car and rushed over to the crowds lining the grand old boulevard – straight to where the CLUAS gaffer (on a flying visit to the French capital) happened to be standing. One international statesman had recognised another, a fellow, a peer.

We’re not sure what advice, if any, our leader gave France’s; suffice it to say that not long afterwards Sarkozy was picking fights with the transport unions, physically confronting US paparazzi and throwing over his wife for a younger model/singer who had got a positive review on CLUAS (and she plans to release a new album of ‘love songs’ in 2008; the mind boggles).

Your Paris correspondent, not privileged to be in attendance at this Franco-Irish summit meeting, carried on through 2007 sketching the Venn diagram where ‘Irish music’ overlaps with ‘French music’. And such was the high level of activity there that our leisurely monthly column had to become a busy blog in order to cope. The Latin Quarter of CLUAS turned into something of a cultural meeting-point where green mixed with blue, pints were shared and croissants were broken in brotherhood.

These solid Franco-Irish relations took a battering (from the Irish point of view at least) on the rugby field. Vincent Clerc’s late try stole victory for les bleus at the historic first foreign game in Croke Park, and an even later try by Elvis Vermuelen against Scotland – on Saint Patrick’s Day! – won France the Six Nations at the expense of Ireland. The less said about Ireland’s disastrous World Cup, the better.

Sebastien ChabalIf it’s any consolation, the home team also considered the Coupe du Monde de Rugby a failure. As they have done in nearly every tournament, le quinze de France played their final too early – their epic Cardiff quarter-final win over the All-Blacks was their psychological peak and England did enough to edge out the hosts in the semi-final.

And the French public didn’t really buy into the efforts to make a cult hero out of the caveman-esque Sebastien Chabal (left).

The only major Irish sporting success in France this year came in October, when the Aidan O’Brien-trained Dylan Thomas won the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, the country’s most prestigious horse race – and even then it looked as if officious French stewards would deny the Irish their win. (Oh, and your blogger NAILED the Paris Marathon.)

Our musicians fared much better on French soil. A plethora of Irish acts played in Paris during 2007: the French capital is now firmly established on the itinerary of any Irish band with ambitions of international success. In fact, we know of a Paris-based Irish agency, Oileán Promotions, which specialises in bringing acts over from Éire to play in France. And another Paris-based Irishman, Perry Blake, consolidated his French and international success with his seventh studio album, ‘Canyon Songs’.

This year there were Paris appearances by Duke Special, Nina Hynes, Simple Kid, The Immediate, The Thrills, The Frank And Walters, Sinead O’Connor, Roisin Murphy, The Answer and Neosupervital, amongst others. Outside the capital, Snow Patrol and The Divine Comedy played in provincial summer festivals.

In particular, Simple Kid and Duke Special gave remarkable Paris performances. Nina Hynes’ two concerts here suffered the misfortune of technical problems for the first gig and a transport strike for the second, yet the princess of Irish astral-pop put on two highly entertaining shows. The Immediate’s springtime shows in Paris proved to be among their last live appearances before the band broke up soon thereafter – snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as the band’s French distributor had just blitzed the record shops and music press of Paris.

Plenty of French acts made the journey in the opposite direction and played to Irish audiences, most notably Justice (three times), Daft Punk, Manu Chao, The Teenagers, Nouvelle Vague (twice), Cassius, Emily Loizeau and Les Rita Mitsouko.

And Dublin now has something of a French scene; in 2007 we featured popular club nights such as French Friday and La Nuit Blanche, as well as Dublin-based French rocker Lauren Guillery. Irish acts are getting in on all this Frenchness too – the video for 'Love Like Nicotine' by Dark Room Notes recreated the famous dance scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s 'Bande À Parte', while Snow Patrol took a high-speed drive around a deserted early-morning Paris in their video for 'Open Your Eyes'.

Well, it looks like your blogger will be staying in Paris for a long time. Life here suits us. We hope our Gallic friends in Dublin and Ireland feel as happy in their home-from-home as we do in the French capital. Here’s the aforementioned video for 'Love Like Nicotine' (quite topical from a Paris context) by Dark Room Notes; see you in deux mille huit.

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Playback’ is an exhibition running at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris until 6 January. In the words of the show's programme, the show "investigates the incursion of visual artists into the field of sound, in the form of original music videos." In other words, it brings together promo clips made by visual artists more at home with modern art than contemporary music.
Unfortunately, the exhibition's premise is flawed. Essays in the brochure and catalogue repeatedly put 'high art' in conflict with 'pop culture', assuming as a truism that art is art, pop is pop, the two are irreconcilable and the artists featured in the show are transgressing some natural law of aesthetics.
This, as we all know, is outdated snobbishness - Andy Warhol's appearance in one of the featured videos, 'Hello Again' by The Cars, reminds us of the man who brought pop into art and art into pop. And three of Derek Jarman's iconic Smiths' videos ('The Queen Is Dead', 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out' and 'Panic') are screened, the late British film-maker just being one of many artists whose genuine engagement with the music video form subverts the patronising premise of this exhibition.
One of the other problems with the exhibition is the lack of any focus or criteria for selecting the videos. The show is presented in various installations around the exhibition space, grouped under headings such as Dance, Posture, Karaoke, Bootleg and Seen On TV. Yet there's no indication as to why the featured videos were selected, what their specific qualities are, or how or if they challenge/comment on the music video form. The Dance section, presented on the small screens of real gym running-machines, features cheap shot-on-video clips of unremarkable dancing to flat music, with no hint of irony, subversion, interesting concept, technical innovation or even just playing for laughs. Like much of the exhibition, it fails as both music video and modern art.
The overall impression is that the curators of ‘Playback' are passing off a half-baked, reactionary, clichéd 'post-modern' concept of music video culture (with all its supposed superficial pop glamour that pretentious art self-righteously looks down on) as aesthetic critique.
A still from the video for the Pet Shop Boys single 'London' directed by Martin ParrThe artists themselves often fare no better in getting a handle on the music video form. In 2002 the Pet Shop Boys engaged the services of two respected visual artists, Wolfgang Tillmans and Martin Parr, to shoot videos for the songs ‘Home And Dry’ and ‘London’ respectively. The similarities between both videos, included in the exhibition, are striking – both are shot on cheap video, feature the litter-strewn streets and underground of everyday London (no surprise to fans of Parr’s fascinating photography) and star Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (left) in casualwear and playing simple instruments (in both videos Tennant, looking like Ray D’Arcy, strums 4/4 time on an acoustic guitar like a plain-clothes priest leading a folk mass).
And Parr’s video for ‘London’ is sunk because of amateurish acting by two men supposed to be playing down-on-their-luck Russian immigrants (as in the song) but grinning giddily in each shot. At least Tillmans fares better; his footage of mice scurrying through the litter on Tube tracks makes a nice counterpoint to ‘Home And Dry’ - a sweet, heartfelt song about missing someone who’s away on work.
Nonetheless, there were some excellent videos in the exhibition. Wyldfile’s video for The Gossip’s ‘Standing In the Way Of Control’ was as brash and colourful as the band and their music, while Doug Aitken’s video for LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Someone Great’ devised a clever concept for representing the song’s theme of the loss of a loved one. Soko Kaukoranta made a beautiful video for ‘Midsummer’s Night’ by cult Finnish electro-popper Jimi Tenor – both visuals and music shimmered with bleak Scandinavian loveliness. And we discovered Devo and their ecstatic ‘Post-Post Modern Man’.
Other things we learned from the exhibition: Everything about Blur’s ‘Country House’ – song, style, Damien Hirst’s video – has aged horribly. Modern artists like to listen to Sonic Youth and Laurie Anderson’s unbearable ‘O Superman’. And RTÉ’s ‘Charity You’re A Star’ is actually a work of post-modern art inspired by legendary German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys singing anti-Reagan song ‘Sonne Statt Reagan’ on a TV show in 1982. There’s something priceless about seeing one of modern art’s most celebrated figures merrily swinging a microphone above his head while singing tunelessly to German pub-rock.
Some of the best works in the exhibition were old MTV station idents by Dara Birnbaum (right) and Miguel Calderon. They reminded us that truly innovative and artistically rich music videos come from people like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze who clearly love the medium and bring an unsnobbish, pop-loving creative imagination to their work.
We learned nothing from this exhibition about the form, aesthetics or development of music videos, the cultural signs and artistic possibilities that make music video such a fascinating subject worthy of rigorous investigation. But perhaps, having learned loads at this summer’s fantastic ‘Rock N’Roll 39-59’ exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, we were expecting too much from ‘Playback’.
The lesson we took from ‘Playback’ was perhaps contrary to its intentions: glamorous, image-obsessed pop music is infinitely more subversive, shocking, imaginative and innovative than ponderous, self-conscious modern art. The best pop music (like all great art, in fact) makes you dream and aspire to transcend your humdrum world, and the best music videos capture these dreams on film. No wonder The Man got rid of Smash Hits and Top Of The Pops.
Here’s our favourite video from the exhibition: Miguel Calderon’s clip for ‘Deiciseis’ (Sixteen) by Los Super Elegantes. There’s something for everyone: music fans can appreciate the fine song, video-lovers will dig the funny, warm-hearted storyline (lowlife boy runs off with nice girl, while her mother disapproves), while modern art theorists can consider Calderon’s use of images of rubbish and riches. But be careful - you can’t dance and think at the same time: 

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Nuggets from our archive

2003 - Witnness 2003, a comprehensive review by Brian Kelly of the 2 days of what transpired to be the last ever Witnness festival (in 2004 it was rebranded as Oxegen when Heineken stepped into the sponsor shoes).