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Album Review: Lee Fields – Emma Jean

 

Praise the Lord, for soul music is back. Could this be the result of NSR’s highly successful show ‘The Funk & Soul Revue’? Probably not. Could it be the result of a re-discovery of the soul and R&B (in the proper sense of the term, that is, Rhythm & Blues) of the 60’s, 70’s and even the disco era? Most likely, yes. Today younger artists are looking back to the golden age of soul for inspiration, whilst older artists such as Daptone’s Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley are reaching greater audiences than they did back in the day. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, a new generation of soul music is under construction, capturing the days when decent groove was first created.

 

At the forefront of this revival has been 63-year old Lee Fields who, dubbed “Little JB” for his vocal similarities with the late Godfather of Soul, has released three superb LP’s on Brooklyn-based label Truth & Soul, the latest of which dropped last week entitled Emma Jean after his late Mother. His debut album on Truth & Soul, My World, reinvigorated his career as a solo artist, whilst pairing him with a young yet impressive ensemble of musicians who call themselves The Expressions has made for a great live act. The follow-up LP Faithful Man was received equally with praise and admiration, continuing in the formula of creating retro, yet bold and creative, soul music.

 

‘Emma Jean’, a more ambitious and more experimental album than ‘Faithful Man’, sees Fields return again to what I think is best described as “cry-yourself-to-sleep-at-night-soul” (although it is also perfectly suited to a late-night walk home from town, in the rain, alone). Fields’ songs combine his raw gutsy vocal power and deep emotional heartache into something quite brilliant. The opener sets the standard high for the rest of the LP; its shifting tempo features a Southern/Memphis-soul organ rift throughout, providing a bluesy foundation to the soulful sound. Throughout the album, Fields’ emotionally charged, raw, gruff vocals dominate over the brilliant backing provided by his younger-backing band, demonstrated on the album’s first single “Magnolia”. “Eye to Eye” also employs this formula with great success, with Fields pleading to his lover to not walk away in spite of their recent fight; but who could turn their back away from a man with such a powerful and growling voice?

 

For all the impressive vocals displayed by Fields, The Expressions must also take their share of the credit for the success of ‘Emma Jean’ and its predecessors. Their approach is mighty impressive, somehow managing to re-visit the soul music of the past without simply re-creating it and becoming bogged-down by nostalgia and imitation. Take “Standing by Your Side”, one of the finer songs on this strong album – Fields vocals ride the tempo changes with gutsy ease, whilst the backing instrumentation is simply top-notch, complete with gritty Southern-soul guitar and horns, ending with  a subtle use of the organ in a similar vein to Stax music legend Booker T. Another great track is “Talk to Somebody”, which flits between Fields incredible vocals – it’s easy to see why he has been dubbed “Little JB” on hearing this track – and the great instrumentation of The Expressions, making this track another highlight of the album.

 

In short, go and buy ‘Emma Jean’; if you can afford it, buy it on vinyl – it’ll sound amazing. Take it home one evening, place it on the turntable and ready yourself a drink; I recommend anything gin based, although red wine could work. You’ll have an amazing night, guaranteed.

 

 

George Haffenden

Film Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past (12A)

Bryan Singer clearly enjoys a challenge.  X-Men: Days of Future Past employs not only a time-travel narrative with resultant logical paradoxes, troche but also features a legion of characters, unhealthy some of whom are played by two different actors. It truly is a testament to Singer’s skills that this makes any sense at all, drug let alone that it turned out to be such good fun! Rarely do we see the seventh episode of a franchise turn out to be arguably the best.

We begin with a desolate future vision of a wasted city. Mutants are being wiped out by the unstoppable sentinels (robots that adapt to any assault), as shown in a breathtaking prologue that neatly explains the time-travel device. In an attempt to avert this destruction, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has his consciousness sent back to 1973, where he must find the young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Together they attempt to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), whose vengeful quest to assassinate sentinel-inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) would result in humanity uniting against mutants.

Credit must go to writer/producer Simon Kinberg for turning a potential narrative minefield into a cohesive story. There are always sticky issues to resolve when dealing with time-travel, especially in terms of clumsy exposition. We are subjected to a certain amount of such explanation but, while rushed and a little forced, the plot smartly does not dwell on mechanics and instead we are flung swiftly into the 1970s within the first fifteen minutes. The vast array of characters is both a blessing and a curse: we witness a wide range of powers and some awesome spectacle, but there are a number of mutants who get introduced without good reason (future X-man Bishop), or brought back for what is essentially a cameo (Halle Berry’s Storm). Even Mystique, the crux of the story, is not given much time for character development, at times feeling more like plot device than person.

That said, there are no complaints about the acting whatsoever. While this is ostensibly another Wolverine-led story, the largest emotional journey is undertaken my McAvoy’s Xavier. Bitter and depressed, Xavier is essentially a drug addict, allowing for a neat reversal of his relationship with Wolverine in the first two X-films, and McAvoy gives the role a great deal of weight and heart. Gone is the cocksure young genius of First Class, while we are certainly a long way away from the genial professor of the future. Jackman still embodies Wolverine with gusto, though the plot doesn’t allow him to be as berserk as we might have liked. Fassbender has a somewhat easier part to play, though one powerful scene on a plane is testament to his acting skill and dangerous charisma. Dinklage’s Trask does not have much on-screen time, but impacts when there. Petty and scared, there are dimensions to his villain not seen since X2’s William Stryker.

There is a lot of plot to get through but, when the action kicks in, it is incredibly well put together. There is a contrast between the bleak battle for survival in the future and the much more fun 70’s combat that works well to highlight to merits of each. Focussed primarily on the past, the glimpses we get of the sentinel battles are vicious and scary, pushing the 12A rating to its very limits. Mutant powers are realised better than ever before, especially Fan Bingbing’s Blink, whose dimension ripping portals look utterly beautiful. Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters, who is quick and has silver hair, may well be the best character in the film, though was interestingly one about which the fans were most pessimistic. Able to move speedily enough that time virtually stops, at one point we witness how he regards life in an extraordinary scene in a kitchen, which is both funny and thrilling.

In a brave move, Days of Future Past significantly alters events so that much of what we saw in previous instalments must be massively altered. Giving the franchise something of a clean slate may eradicate some of the less loved elements, but also cheapens to some degree the stories that were well regarded. It will be fascinating to see where this will lead in future episodes, though it is possible that leaving events as they have will lead to headaches as to how to get things rolling smoothly again. A disappointing post-credits sting alludes to the next in the series, but isn’t necessarily worth a ten minute wait.

A clever exercise in connecting timelines, Days of Future Past is all that a summer blockbuster should be. Exciting and heartfelt, with a delicate balance of light and shade, there are mostly criticisms for what isn’t there, rather than what is. A true shot in the arm for a slightly flagging franchise.

Peter Wood

Film Review Godzilla (12A)

Who would win in a fight, buy cialis a giant lizard monster or Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg? A tough one to call, health but Gareth Edwards seems to be the right man to find out. His debut film, stuff Monsters, was made on a shoestring budget, with all of the visual effects done by Edwards on his laptop, rivalling anything produced by major studios at the time. It also gave a fresh perspective on the ‘giant beastie’ genre, garnering as much sympathy for the creatures as the humans. As such, when searching for the director to helm a reboot of Godzilla, the quintessential monster franchise, many agreed there was no better choice. With enough financing to make his debut over 300 times, the anticipation has been steadily mounting, not least to see what he can do with this new iteration of the iconic colossus.

Bryan Cranston plays Joe Brody, a nuclear engineer obsessively investigating the meltdown of the Japanese power plant he where he worked in 1999. Fifteen years later, he is still convinced that the real cause of the accident has been covered up and convinces his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), to help search for the truth. As conspiracies are revealed, an ancient being is awoken and events spiral out of human control. While Ford, an army bomb disposal expert, attempts to help in any way he can, his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and their young son await news in San Francisco, unaware that the danger may be coming their way.

In terms of spectacle, Godzilla is unlikely to disappoint. A number of gigantic set-pieces are littered throughout the film, from the tense first-act reveal (reminiscent of Jurassic Park’s T-Rex encounter) to the final battle. The promising young director of Monsters has clearly evolved into a filmmaker with talent to burn, who teases and satisfies in turn, with huge, jaw-dropping vistas leading on from sinister imagery of a cockroach crawling over a toy tank. One particularly anxious scene, involving fog and a railway bridge, neatly shows how quieter moments can be equally effective.

Story-wise, there is less to be praised. While an improvement on Roland Emmerich’s dismal offering, it does not feel as though there was a story waiting to be told. Between each scene of astonishing destruction is a bit of expositionary dialogue, explaining why the next fun bit is about to happen. The motivations of both monster and human seem fairly pointless; our protagonists in particular, rather than leading the story, merely take orders from the higher ranks. Olsen’s wife-in-distress is purely there to give the men something to fight for, while Ken Watanabe stars as a scientist whose PhD must be in monster motivations and how best to explain them. Playing it very straight, Godzilla suffers from some tonal issues: plenty of darkness and despair without acknowledging the ludicrousness of this B-Movie conceit.

Of course, the main attraction will always be the creature of this feature, and Godzilla is bigger and badder than ever before. The new design is an evolution of the original man-in-a-suit design that irons out the kinks to produce a truly fearsome beast. Perhaps the most interesting character, it seems a shame that much of the narrative focus is elsewhere, though this is made up for during the final showdown.

A tense and exciting experience while watching, Godzilla unravels somewhat in post-cinema pondering, as the many merits and visual delights are hampered by a lacklustre story. Not the masterpiece many were hoping for, this is still a thrilling summer blockbuster and Edwards is certainly a man to watch.

Peter Wood

Film Review: The Two Faces of January (12A)

Despite the wintry title, treat The Two Faces of January offers sun-kissed, ouzo-soaked vistas of 1960s Greece. Unfortunately for those in need of a relaxing optical holiday, this film is an anxious, claustrophobic thriller full of deceit, jealousy and barely contained rage. The dual-faced Greek god Janus, for whom the month and story are named, presides over change and transition, past and future, war and peace, all of which are present in Hossein Amini’s directorial debut, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.

It is 1962 and Rydal (Oscar Isaac) is an American tour guide in Greece, happily conning customers out of small sums and taking advantage of rich, naive college girls. Along come Chester and Collette McFarland (Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst), well-to-do tourists of the very sort Rydal loves to exploit. Showing them the highlights of Athens’ beauty spots, he grows attached to both, Collette in particular. This connection results in him helping them after Chester’s dodgy business dealings back home catch up with him, requiring new passports and a hasty departure. As they venture into the arid Greek islands, Rydal finds his loyalties tested by his growing affection for Collette and trepidation about the honesty and sanity of Chester, who grows ever closer to breaking point.

An old fashioned thriller, The Two Faces of January delights in scenes of growing discontent within the group, as Rydal and Chester compete for Collette’s affection. However much is spoken, what is left unsaid is far juicier. With Amini’s strong script to work with, Isaac and Mortensen play jealous rivals with gusto, two sides of the same coin (another deliberate Janus reference), while Dunst is surprisingly good as the wife torn between fidelity to a compromised man and the promise of escape. The battle for alpha supremacy leads to some truly tense scenes, which are often unrelated to the main narrative, but reveal so well the bitterness and complexities of both men. Despite this, some of the more fascinating character psychology is left under-developed, such as the twisted pseudo-paternalistic relationship between the men, while Collette’s indecision is at times passive enough to provoke frustration.

The Greek locations are beautiful in their desolation, with the many ruins witnessed along the way representative of the emotional voids within all three leads. The sweltering heat serves to enhance the sweaty atmosphere, while simultaneously juxtaposing striking natural light with the moral grey in which our characters reside. The score by Alberto Iglesias is anxious but not obtrusive, beyond some evocative Greek harmonies accompanying dazzling establishing shots. The direction is superb, with the scenery often obscured by close-ups of tired and miserable faces, insisting that the audience feels almost as uncomfortable as the weary travellers. Amini rarely allows the camera to rest, as it circles its targets, waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

The first half of the film focuses on a disaster waiting to happen, as the authorities grow closer, while the second picks up the pace as the trio is split, both physically and in allegiance. Not quite as tight as when the characters were together, there is still plenty to enjoy, as Mortensen descends to darker places and Isaac must choose between what is right and his own wellbeing. Particularly fine is a wordless encounter between the two men on a ferry, that perfectly demonstrates the ‘show-don’t-tell’ nature of great cinema. The final act brings nothing new, but is reminiscent of Hitchcock or, more recently, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, as events spiral out of control. The climax is well crafted but ultimately a little disappointing, as characters defy what we have come to understand as their defining traits for slightly too neat an ending.

A tight, taught thriller with superb turns from the three leads, The Two Faces of January eschews explosions and feats of physicality for psychological tension and dramatic layering. On the evidence of this and Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac seems destined for great things, and Amini’s direction displays a confidence that belies his inexperience.

Peter Wood

Film Review: The Wind Rises Review (PG)

There has been no more illustrious a career in film than that of Hayao Miyazaki. For decades, capsule his animations have each become treasured gems that appeal to children and adults in equal measure. The Wind Rises (reportedly his final film) is something of a stylistic departure for Miyazaki, as it focuses on a story that will appeal far more to older audiences, with less of the magic and fantasy that have previously mesmerised generations of young viewers. It also asks some difficult questions about moral responsibilities without delivering simplistic answers, with a subject matter that may have trouble eliciting sympathy from some Western perspectives.

This story is a highly fictionalised account of the attempts by Jiro Horikoshi to design aeroplanes that would eventually be used against Allied forces in the Second World War. Following Jiro from childhood as he dreams of flight and adventure, we witness his development as both engineer and person as he struggles to reconcile the joy and beauty of his creations with the deadly ways in which they were used. As the Japanese technology tries to keep up with European engineering, Jiro must balance his occupational responsibilities with a burgeoning romance with his true love, Nahoko.

The focus of The Wind Rises is the personal journey of a gentle soul, rather than the moral questionability of his designs. Throughout the film are a number of extraordinary dream-sequences in which Jiro speaks with the legendary Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni. Here they discuss whether the pursuit of flight is worth the sacrifice of human life, never moralising at the audience, but acknowledging the difficulty of this reality. The fact is that wars are always times of great industry, the results of which have many benefits beyond the application of violence. It may be hard for some to separate the imperialist motivations of the harsh Japanese regime from Jiro’s pacifistic ethics, but there is a clear internal struggle that appears in moments of discord throughout the narrative.

The art in this film is truly stunning. Vast landscapes that melt away under the wings of majestic machines show that, while a more pragmatic tale than typical Miyazaki fare, the appreciation of the natural world is always present. Similarly, the skies are so achingly beautiful that it is easy to empathise with a dream of reaching out and touching the clouds, birds and glowing sunsets. The industrial side of the story is often horribly bleak, filling the screen with globules of oil and the smoking wreckage of failed prototypes. An early dream sees vile-looking mythical flying machines reminiscent of Howl’s Moving Castle dropping pulsating bombs that practically drip with evil. These unsettling images only serve to emphasize the purity of Jiro’s vision and Miyazaki’s personal themes of natural preservation. Many of the sound effects were charmingly created using human voices, perhaps another indication of the director’s philosophies of humanity over industry.

The pacing is rather gentle, while the frequent engineering discussions may lose the interest of some. Rated a PG, there is not much likely to distress a child, but the 126-minute running time and dialogue-heavy scenes are unlikely to captivate those too young to appreciate the complexities. This film feels decidedly personal and, as such, perhaps the universal appeal of much of Miyazaki’s work is diminished. The director’s father worked supplying parts for Mitsubishi planes, while his mother suffered through tuberculosis, as does a major character. Such autobiographical elements add authenticity to the emotional journeys undertaken by Jiro, while also allowing insight into a difficult period of Japanese history. The poverty and sickness suffered by millions starkly contrasts with the expensive military drive for supremacy.

The Wind Rises may well divide audiences, even those loyal to Miyazaki’s previous films, as it bravely moves away from culturally transcendental fantasy to something much more individual. A beautiful tale of creative inspiration and love, this will not be for everyone, but will resonate deeply with many.

Peter Wood

Win a signed THUMPERS Album and T-Shirt!

London’s finest alternative pop-rock duo THUMPERS released their fantastic debut album Galore earlier this year and are currently undertaking a UK tour. To mark the occasion we have a signed copy of the album and a free t-shirt to give away!

To be in with a chance to win, viagra 100mg all you have to do is Tweet us your question for the boys to @NSRLive using here "type":104}”>#AskThumpers– and one lucky winner will be picked by the band when we interview them next Wednesday!

You can post your question on our Facebook page if Twitter scares you a little too!

Whether you want to know – “Who they would love to duet with?”, “What’s the last thing they do before they go on stage?” or simply “Which was their favourite Teletubby?” – #AskThumpers now to find out!

THUMPERS are playing in Newcastle at the Cluny on Wednesday 28th May.
The debut album is out to buy now.

THUMPERS_Galore_packshot

Film Review: Bad Neighbours (15)

In 2008, viagra the world was not such a different place. A glance at the CVs of Seth Rogen and Zac Efron, erectile however, tells a different tale. Rogen was busy playing the loser man-child in Pineapple Express, while Efron was squeaky clean in High School Musical 3. Now, in Bad Neighbours, the roles are reversed, with Rogen’s aspirational family man pitted against Efron’s immature frat boy. The latest in the recent trend of improvisatory, crude American comedies, this is likely to divide audiences, as those looking for wit and sophistication will be left unfulfilled.

Rogen plays Mac Radner, who is adjusting to parenthood along with his wife, Kelly (Rose Byrne). They have recently poured their savings into a house in a nice neighbourhood and are invested in making proper adulthood work. Enter Efron’s Teddy, the president of Delta Psi Beta, a fraternity that has moved in next door after burning down their previous residence. Both parties make efforts to consider the neighbours, but opposing life-styles result in an all-out war that builds to ludicrous proportions.

The comedy in Bad Neighbours is crass to say the least. Relying mainly on body-humour and escalation, there is little subtlety to the film, but there are a number of laughs to be had from relaxing into the stupidity. The filmmakers are clearly aware of their target demographic and play strongly to the teen market, but do so inventively. It is also refreshing, within this male-dominated genre, to have a female character who is not sidelined, as Byrne remains just as central to proceedings as Rogen. The improvising that makes up many of the scenes is both a strength and weakness; allowing the actors to relax into funny and spontaneous moments can also stretch on too long, leaving baggy scenes that need a more rigorous edit.

Plot-wise there is little to talk about, with the decent set-up degrading into scenes that work individually but do not quite hang together. This sketchy approach leaves the resolution, like many similar comedies, somewhat sudden and unfulfilling, as narrative catharsis is disregarded. Had there been a more detailed script, certain interesting story elements may have been better fleshed out, with the personal issues of both Teddy and Mac barely hinted at, despite that being the driving force behind their enmity.

Regardless of these narrative flaws, Bad Neighbours is an entertaining romp with a varied panoply of supporting characters to keep things interesting. There is little new in this film, but experience has crafted a gross-out comedy that does what it does, and does it well.

Peter Wood

Film Review: Pompeii (12A)

Setting a personal story within historical tragedy makes significant narrative sense, see providing impossible odds, buy cialis thrilling encounters with death, buy and opportunities to exploit both the best and worst elements of human nature. There is even a preordained sequence of events to use as structure. Following the impossible-love formula of Titanic, director Paul W.S. Anderson has taken us back two millennia, to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and the destruction of the Roman city of Pompeii.

We meet our hero, Milo (Kit Harrington), as a child, during the massacre of his people by the Romans in northern Britannia. Fast-forward seventeen years and he is now a feisty, ‘abtastic’ gladiator in Londinium, about to be sent to Pompeii where he is to fight Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) in the arena. There he meets Cassia, the daughter of the local ruler, with whom he begins a class-defying romance. Unfortunately for all concerned, vicious Roman senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland) is visiting, who had led the slaughter of Milo’s family and intends to marry Cassia. Along the way there are gladiatorial battles, romantic horse rides, and male bonding, all before the local tourist attraction goes mental.

The tagline for Pompeii reads ‘No Warning. No Escape’, which somewhat forgets the constant reminders given that something bad is about to happen. The ground caves in, tremors occur every five minutes, and cracks appear faster than at a construction workers’ yoga convention. One clever-clogs even realises (too late) that everything is going pear-shaped and decides to scarper. Sadly, it is extremely difficult to care about the impending doom of an entire city when trying not to laugh at risible dialogue, pantomime villainy and a budget stretched thin.

There will be few surprises for viewers, as the plot follows conventions to the letter, while the dialogue is either thinly-veiled exposition or clichéd character development. The romance between Milo and Cassia is unbelievable and there seems little narrative drive, as if the inevitability of a bombastic third act makes proper structure unnecessary. Pompeii feels like a series of scenes strung together rather than a considered story with causal momentum. While there is fun to be had from such B-Movie tropes, there is never a sense of genuine engagement with the material. The acting is incredibly average, with only Sutherland having any fun playing it very camp and sporting a wonderfully appalling English accent.

The combat scenes scattered through the film are decently choreographed and relatively inventive, with some entertaining moments during the Pompeii arena set-piece. Our hero is pitted against ludicrous odds, but there is never a sense of true jeopardy. Distractingly, there is a real dissonance between the crunchiness of the violence and the lack of any visceral gore. That isn’t to say that combat requires spurting blood to be exciting, but when a giant man sets about with an equally giant axe, it is unrealistic that not a drop should spill. The whole thing has the sense of a dress-rehearsal before the big event. It is possible to create thrilling action within the strictures of a 12A certificate, but this is not achieved by filming Gladiator level action and neglecting to add blood in post-production.

During the volcanic climax there is plenty of spectacle to be entertained by, and it is easy to see where the budget was primarily focussed as the visual effects are well realised. The problem is that, when there is no emotional investment, it is hard to care about any mortal threat. If disbelief has not been suspended, the extras being crushed, burnt and trampled seem almost comic, rather than tragic.

Pompeii is a film that is never boring, but for all the wrong reasons. A script that could be the result of an internet cliché generator, with characters to match, entertains through sheer stupidity, and an explosive climax only serves to highlight the narrative flaws. In a word, Pompainful.

Peter Wood