Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Three Belgian bands recommended by Hooverphonic's Alex Callier

Alex Callier is the songwriter and mainstay of Belgium's Hooverphonic. They've released six studio albums since 1996 and deserve to have a greater following on this side of the Channel. Unfortunately, late last year, lead singer Geike Arnaert announced she was leaving the group to go solo.

"The Go Find – it's very intimate music but I really like the tunes. They make very nice, moody music; their second album [Stars On The Wall (2007)] is really beautiful.

"Goose is a bit more electronic, they have a couple of cool tracks on their first album [Bring It On (2006)].

"The first three albums [I'm Seeking Something That Has Already Found Me (1996), This Last Warm Solitude (1998) and Birthmarks (2001)] of Ozark Henry – the name comes from a movie – are really good, very filmic."

Belgium: a state of mind

In 1995, actor, author and Twitter fiend Stephen Fry walked out of the West End production in which he was starring, Simon Gray’s Cell Mates. Nobody knew where he had gone but it turned out that he had taken a ferry to Belgium; on his return to the UK he was diagnosed as bipolar. A couple of years ago, Fry revealed that just before his disappearance he had tried to kill himself.

I'm off to Belgium this weekend and it occurs to me that the country conjures a particular mindset in English-language writers. The most recent manifestation of this is the brilliantly funny In Bruges, when two assassins, Ray (Colin Farrell, channelling Father Dougal) and Ken, hide out in the city after Ray accidently kills a child. "I didn't even know where Bruges fucking was," Ray notes in the film's introductory voiceover. "It's in Belgium." (Nor is he impressed when they get there: "If I grew up on a farm, and was retarded, Bruges might impress me but I didn't, so it doesn't.")

David Mitchell's accordion-like 2004 masterpiece Cloud Atlas features in its six tales the correspondence of a young musician, Robert Frobisher, who has fled to work with a composer in the Belgian countryside. Thirtysomething Edward Manners is another gay character who flees to Flanders – in Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star (1994) – for escape and, possibly, redemption. There’s a sense that in Belgium a person may lose himself and become grounded; by ferry from England it's the first landfall of the European continent. None of these figures take Eurostar or the plane to Belgium (I don't think it's specified how Ken and Ray get there).

In Bruges's Ray contemplates killing himself to atone for his act: "I will have always have killed that little boy. That isn't ever going away. Unless, maybe, I go away." As Stephen Fry showed, in Belgium it needn't come to that. To misquote Virginia Woolf in The Hours: "If it is a choice between Belgium and death, I choose Belgium." I am taking Eurostar.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Dyer straits

It reads like a quote from the cover of one of his books: Geoff Dyer is the type of writer whose work you want to press onto loved ones or, better still, lovers. My best mate apparently gauges his friends by their response to John Irving's A Prayer For Owen Meany (LOTS OF UPPER CASE TEXT); you don't expect people to have read Dyer but you want to pass his books on, as a reflection of you, and so much the better if people like him.

Another friend recently received a signed copy of Dyer's latest, Jeff In Venice, Death In Varanasi, from her new boyfriend. I urged his books onto a girlfriend; I may have hoped that they would come back to me, in a sense, if our book collections were joined, as we were, but things didn't turn out that way.

As someone who has written on photography (The Ongoing Moment), war memorials (The Missing Of The Somme) and jazz and photography (But Beautiful), it's been a while since Dyer has produced what is nominally a novel. You'll have gathered that Dyer is not someone who sticks to one genre; he skips from one the subject to the next, usually finishing a book as he grasps its topic.

In his fiction, you can replace "subject" with "place": The Colour Of Memory, The Search and Paris Trance are all steeped in their setting, as is this latest. The punning of the title continues through its first half, which features a skinny art critic called Jeff who travels to Venice to cover the Biennale. The city defies original description, so Geoff describes the art, the art world (perhaps in a little too much detail) and the sex Jeff has there. Dyer's familiar foibles are here: U-boats (Paris Trance, I think), being pissed on (Paris Trance, again, I think) and women's anuses (erm, Paris Trance?).

As well as a great critique of Tom Hanks' movies, Dyer also offers a form of raison d'etre for his own unique voice: "People say it's not what happens in your life that matters, it's what you think happened… It was quite possible that the central event of your life could be something that didn't happen, or something you thought didn't happen. Otherwise there'd be no need for fiction, there'd only be memoirs and histories, case histories; what happened – what actually happened and what you thought happened – would be enough."

The book's second half, also familiarly, is essentially travelogue: an unnamed first person narrator travels to Varanasi in India, which has been namechecked as a possible destination in the first part. There are other connections as well as the watery settings (both starting with V) notwithstanding; both Jeff and this narrator are described as looking like monkeys when they eat bananas.

Breakdown is another familiar motif for Dyer, whether in Detroit (Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It) or on the beach in Mexico (Out Of Sheer Rage, his excellent DH Lawrence book). As in the latter, "I's" collapse here is brought on by drugs but it's probably the most consummate of Dyer's finales; it is, as a cover blurb might have it, a triumph.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Hamer time

Another new film that features an older man (see Il divine Sorrentino, below) as its subject is O'Horten, starring Baard Owe (The Kingdom I & II). Bent Hamer's film has touches of Roy Andersson, Aki Kaurismäki and Lasse Hallström's My Life As A Dog and is very highly recommended (it's out from May 8).

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The best sequenced electropop album – ever!

Having mentioned the terrible track sequence on Pet Shop Boys' Fundamental album, I thought I'd put together a compilation of some of the best electropop songs with each track in the same spot as on the album from which it comes, if you see what I mean (beginning to regret this already)…

1 Fine Time, New Order (from Technique)

2 Your Love Takes Me Higher, The Beloved (Happiness)

3 I've Been Losing You, A-ha (Scoundrel Days)

4 Patience of a Saint, Electronic (Electronic)

5 Neon Lights, Kraftwerk (The Man Machine)

6 Enjoy the Silence, Depeche Mode (Violator)

7 So Hard, Pet Shop Boys (Behaviour)

8 L'enfer enfin, Etienne Daho (Eden)

9 Voyager, Momus (Voyager)

10 Yesterday, When I Was Drunk, Gangway (Sitting in the Park – Again)

Hmm, might be worth a listen/tweak.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Europop etc

Following on from the use of Trio's Da Da Da at the close of Il Divo, there's a lovely moment towards the end of In the City of Sylvia where the barmaid in the student theatre café at the centre of José Luis Guerín's beautiful film hums along to Desireless' Voyage Voyage. (One of the best uses of an '80s pop song on a film's soundtrack recently is OMD's Enola Gay in Waltz With Bashir, which is out now on DVD if you missed it.)

If there's a very minor revival of brilliant '80s Europop going on at the moment, it's confirmed by the best track on Pet Shop Boys' new album, Yes. The Way It Used To Be riffs on the same synth pipe sounds as Voyage Voyage, with some delicate guitar oddly not from collaborator Johnny Marr, creating a moment of real poignancy among the pop clichés of the rest of the album. It's up there with probably one of the best Europop tracks of two decades ago, Words, by FR David, who is commemorated in an eponymous art journal from bonkers Dutch publisher De Appel. It bears the epigram, "Words, don't come easy," of course.

The Way It Used To Be and the few other standout songs on Yes were all co-written with producers Xenomania (the others being single Love etc and the break in More Than a Dream that's pure Belinda Carlisle; to which I would add track Pandemonium, which has something of Xenomania's verve). The production team were either locked out of the studio for the other tracks, couldn't be bothered, or PSB's songwriting isn't up to the match (see Girls Aloud's dreary The Loving Kind, which is The Other Two's Tasty Fish but not as tasty).

The experiment does work, however, on double-CD release Yes etc, which features a second disc of instrumental remixes. PSB have released companion discs to albums before - Fundamentalism was a non-starter, Relentless a fire-starter. This kicks in with a great new track, This Used to Be the Future, featuring Phil Oakey, and bounces along very happily indeed for the following six dub versions.

On Yes etc, PSB do what they do best, something they don't do on Yes itself: create great pop using today's sounds without reverting to cliché ("I wanna live like beautiful people/Give like beautiful people"; "This is a song about boys and girls/You hear it playing all over the world"; "Do you believe heaven is a better place?/We'll be there in a heartbeat." Cripes). I'll forgive them if The Way It Used To Be does herald an '80s Europop revival, however small.

PS PSB quote themselves on that great moment in More Than a Dream: "Driving through the night…" Used to be so exciting, we might add.

UPDATE For another great Europop film finale, check out Jessica Hausner's Lourdes.