Monday, 29 October 2012

'Death of a Salesman' at Theatre Royal

Death of a Salesman tells the story of a man a little too old to continue his demanding work and a little too young to leave it all together. Willy Loman and his wife Linda are struggling to pay off their mortgage and the stress shows when Willy starts to lose his concentration on the road. We meet the scene when drop-kick son Biff moves home after years of drifting, and past regrets rise to the surface.

It’s a sincere examination on what has changed and what has stayed the same in contemporary Western society. Does a ranch still cost a few thousand dollars? No. Do families still experience job disruption and personal stress?  Yes, of course. It was apparent how close to home some sections of the play resounded when an according laugh broke out of the audience - especially when Loman talks about the relief of paying off a house, only to have everyone moved out. Death of a Salesman is the classic twentieth century play, driven by dialogue, exempt from elaborate sets and performances – and the Belvoir production is just as raw, confronting and real. Director Simon Stone opts for a minimalist set and maximum power from the actors and stays true to Arthur Miller’s script.

Colin Friels holds a strong stage presence as Willy Loman, from his soft mad utterings to the loud, alarming outbursts of frustration. He concentrates on the power of the human voice and although reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s 1985 film performance, bared on stage Friels is almost frightening. His poetic reflections on work, life and the point of it are close to a modern truth. 

Patrick Brammall brings a sad sensitivity to Biff, the eldest Loman son, lost in the modern world where business means lying and the charismatic one always wins. Younger son Hap, played by Hamish Michael, counteracts Biff’s despondency with the chirpy tune of a young New York City slicker living the life of bars, business and ladies.

The Belvoir actors speak in an Australian twang and it’s true that this story could take place anywhere but Stone sets the piece by New York. It is a bit bizarre hearing an Australian talk about lumber and pounds. Death of a Salesman is a heavy watch, there’s no comic relief or musical interludes here, and that’s what makes it so powerful as a play. The performance demands a mature audience. For the words of 63 years ago are still meaningful and the Belvoir production articulates just that in a compelling, uninhibited interpretation.  

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Album Review - "Lonerism" by Tame Impala

Lonerism (2012)              ★  

It's been a long wait since 2009's Innerspeaker but Tame Impala are back with their distinct psychedelic tunes and sweeping melodies. There is even less of a pop structure to these tracks, the band's certainly not heading in the indie pop direction. Even so, it's hard not to appreciate the fragile vocals strung above a rhythmic bass, surging chorus and heavy electric guitar pulling together all the best parts of each genre of music: rock 'n' roll, acid rock, pop, folk and electronica.

Kevin Parker (frontman) thinks like an electronic producer and writes like an artist. Lonerism is deeply rooted in heavy instrumental tracks with a concealed seamlessness between tracks. The layering and textural elements are off the roof, developing the classic Tame Impala sound into a deeper swirling vortex. It's easy to get lost in the sonic sound but there's an apparent influence from classic psychedelics and the Beatles here. 'Mind Mischief' is reminiscent of Revolver with its group harmonies and loopy poetic lyrics. Tame Impala harness the spirit of 60s pop and 70s rock groove without emulating the same sound, they create one all their own.

From the get go the lyrics are introspective, thoughtful and enigmatic: “Are you too terrified to try your best/ Just to end up with an educated guess?” Single 'Apocalypse Dreams' was the first released off the album in July to great success but doesn't quite represent the complexity of Lonerism in full. There are melodies which rise and fall naturally in synch with instrumental and vocal components. It is a shame that most of the lyrics are lost in the overwhelming surreal sound but it's an album to delve discover as you go along, to listen to at different times and in different moods. 

Tame Impala bring in the new age synth and keyboard in 'Music to Walk Home By' and futuristic effects in a bubbly energetic 'Why Won't They Talk To Me' - which seems to be the 'Solitude is Bliss' of the second album. In any one track you can find slow acoustic moments, pulsating bass, retro harmonies and heavy electric guitar - each song exploring differing dynamics. It can feel like you're stuck in a time warp but then again Lonerism is so utterly contemporary and different to anything coming out of Australia right now. One for the masses? Highly doubt it. One to purchase for vinyl lovers, dance fans and anything else in between? Sure thing.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Film Review - "Looper" by Rian Johnson

Looper (2012)               1/2

Rian Johnson’s Looper is like 2010’s Inception with the gore of Die Hard – a sci-fi action film that doesn’t shy away from physical violence or the abstract complexity of a fabricated existence. It’s lucky then that the leading men of these two films, Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, play the main characters (or character, if you’re getting technical about it).

Time travel has been invented by the year 2074 but is immediately outlawed, sending organised crime flying and making urban violence a daily affair. Futuristic tracking devices make it impossible for assassins to dispose of bodies secretly, and so future city slickers take it upon themselves to develop the strategy of ‘loopers’, those who deal with victims of assassination, in the past. They live the classy life – showgirls, nightclubs, flashy cars and drugs – but it all changes when looper Joe (played by Gordon-Levitt) encounters his future self (played by Willis), who has been sent back to 2044.

The urban scenes of 2044 are confronting – a dirty, disorganised, unrecognisable place high in crime and social disarray. It has the bustle of an Indian city with the dangerous alleyways of a Detroit or Chicago. Up against the messy futuristic lifestyle, the vast sweeping Kansan plains have survived – and they are Joe’s location for securing victims. The special effects are impressive and the dramatic images look great on the big screen. We’re left sitting in suspense for most of the film.

Emily Blunt’s character, Sara, is introduced halfway through although she plays a key part. (It’s a bit bizarre to hear a drawling southern accent in place of her usual British articulation.) It does take time for the film to set up but once it makes sense how the system works, it’s easy to suspend disbelief and get lost in the film. Pierce Gagnon as Cid, Sara’s child, is surprisingly mature. He delivers his lines with aggression and clarity, which makes the scenes a little uneasy considering he’s only 10 years old. In fact, there’s both a wickedness and likeability to almost all of the characters, a tempting mix.

Looper is one big chase and a question of who will win: the criminals, the authorities or the targeted. The plot weaves well together in its final moments with a poignant look at human relationships. It’s true that, although technology will forever be updated and crises aplenty, the nature of human beings doesn’t really change. I have to admit it’s a little bit of a tearjerker ending.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Eugène Atget "Old Paris" at the Art Gallery of NSW

Coin de la Rue Valette et Pantheon (1925)

The photography of Eugène Atget opens up an entirely distinctive perception of Paris that is quite separate from what we have seen before. The hauntingly quiet streets, deteriorating apartment buildings and overgrown parks enrich the strong visual history of one of the world's favourite cities. The Art Gallery of NSW's exhibition "Old Paris"captures a pre-Haussmann Paris through a sepia lens in astonishing reality. In an age of retouching and digital enhancements, it is refreshing to notice the original art of photography and its ability to represent and articulate in its own way. A few street characters grace the collection but there is an overwhelming majority of urban landscapes - empty streets, parks and never-ending staircases.

"Old Paris" works chronologically through Atget's work while also separating thematically into his favourite subject matters. No print is enlarged and so it's an exhibition to take the time and look closely at the works. Atget captured the flavour of each arrondissement, from Montmatre's popular Place du Tetre to the serene grandiosity of the fifth and sixth quarters. The Eiffel Tower does not make an appearance, and other famous sites seem to peek out behind anonymous buildings, providing us with an authenticity which inspired documentary photographers to follow.

The intimate nature of the exhibition allows us to see the physical remnants of Atget's work - a scribbled number on a negative, clamp marks, naturel vignetting. "Old Paris" is indeed an ode to the monumental city but also an illustration of city life in the 18th century. The imagery seems at once both surreal and archival. It is the first time that Atget's work has been shown in Australia due to the fragile nature of the prints. The exhibition is attractive to both avid photographers and curious newcomers and one not to be missed by French fans.

Old Paris is at the Art Gallery of NSW until November 4.

Rue de l'Hôtel de Ville (1921)

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Interview with Alexander Gow from Oh Mercy

Since we last spoke with OH MERCY, the band has played South by Southwest, added another member to the existing quartet, released their latest album Deep Heat to great acclaim and are about to head on a massive national tour. We had a chat with frontman Alexander Gow on performing in America, reading the classics and filming a music video.

The first thing we noticed about the Deep Heat album is of course the semi-nude woman on the cover, a follow-up from the Ken Done nude on their last album Great Barrier Grief. The striking shot of a carnival scene in Brazil was snapped by the late photographer Rennie Ellis and Gow relates this to an historical practice.

“Well, there’s a great tradition of having provocative photos and images of people, women, that have nothing to do with a particular making of an album on album covers and it started in the late 50s and through the 60s,” he says.

“It’s just something I’ve always admired and from the word go I wanted to keep that up in my music, I think it’s a point of interest and it’s putting feminine beauty on a platform, and I think it’s fun as well.”

And back to the music – Deep Heat is something entirely different for the band. There is no acoustic guitar rhythm or chord changes applied by piano. With more of a glam rock flavour and homage to music of the late 70s and 80s, Gow attributes this to a switch-up of instruments.

“I knew it was going to be a groove-based record and to do that you work from the bottom up, so there’s bass and drums and then the vocals and everything else is just, you know, bits and pieces,” he says.
“I suppose the main difference is the execution. I’ve always written in a similar way, whether it be on the guitar or the piano, I have a certain ‘song-writing style’ – I guess you could call it. The difference being this time that I decided to execute it differently in terms of instrumentation and arrangement.”

Before the release of Deep Heat, OH MERCY toured the states around the same time as some other Australian bands including Big Scary, DZ Deathrays and Dead Letter Circus. Performing at SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas provided the opportunity to catch some international acts but also see their Australian counterparts perform in-between.

“The idea of going to somewhere like America is really charming because of the extent of people that are always going to be an audience that will appreciate what we are doing,” Gow says.

“Austin itself is a really unique and beautiful part of the world and so basically when we go and tour in America it feels like one big holiday and we’re really lucky.”

For this new album, Alexander Gow actually taught himself how to play the piano. After four consecutive tours, he had a problem with one of his arms from playing the guitar so often but it didn’t hurt while playing the piano. “It actually wasn’t as romantic as it sounds,” he says, “I didn’t have to get very good at the piano to write music. For instance, I was not very good at the guitar either, I learnt a handful of chords, just enough to get by to write a song, so I’m no aficionado on the piano but I got by.”

A prominent influence which appears on Deep Heat, particularly track ‘Europa’, is that of classical literature- no, not even Jane Austen, think earlier, a millennium earlier. Gow spent some time reading the ancient myths and stories and was fascinated by the concepts. He cited Roman writer Ovid as a favourite for his sense of humour. “Lots of the concepts come from these stories, stories that are super perverse in terms of their sexuality and the violence – really, really out-there kind of things, things that would make most people quite squeamish and yet they write things that are generally considered taboo these days, and I found it really enticing and inspiring.”

Two months ago, OH MERCY released their debut music video off the Deep Heat record for single ‘Drums’. Alexander Gow also has a firm control over these elements of the band, making conscious decisions on aesthetics. (Check up our write-up of ‘Drums’ video here). “I knew for the first clip of the new album which was entirely different to anything else we’ve done, I didn’t want to make a narrative-based clip nor did I want to make a performance-based clip.” The actual production of the video was fairly homemade- inviting over the band’s friends for party time.

“Musically is probably the most carefree song on the record, so I just wanted to put on a party for my friends and I just wanted to dress up and have a bit of fun and see if we could capture that on film and we did just that. We even filmed for a couple of hours and the party went on for a fair few more!”
Gow hopes that this sort of atmosphere seeps into the music. What situation best complements OH MERCY? “I guess I’d like to think that it would be one to be played after a dinner party after a few too many wines or something like that when the table gets cleared out of the lounge room and that kind of vibe.”

Heading on the Deep Heat tour with OH MERCY will be Brisbane’s Millions. As far as being the support act goes, Gow thinks it’s a crucial part of breaking into the industry. OH MERCY themselves gained fans from supporting for the likes of Sparkadia, The Panics and Crowded House. He says, “Being the support act is the almost wonderful is that you can turn up to a venue and not have to worry about how full or how empty it’s gonna be – you can play to a ready-made audience and ideally you can win new fans. So that’s a really carefree, wonderful way to go about it.”

From this tour we can expect classic OH MERCY with a bit of a change in roles. “I’m not playing the guitar anymore so I’m having to take on that front role kind of front-man role and that’s different. I’ve got a gold jacket, that’s different. I won’t parachuting in from a helicopter or anything like that.” (phew!)
I know my band so intimately that I know the way that they express their joy or dismay. I can tell when everyone’s having a good time and it’s contagious and a really wonderful thing when it happens.”

In the near future we’ll be looking out for a music video for ‘My Man’ which OH MERCY worked on last weekend. “That was Saturday and Sunday, like a 2 14-hr suit and hopefully that’s ready in like a week or two. It was really ambitious and lot’s of fun to make.”

How has the music been received so far? It’s too early to tell but fans are already catching on to the mood. Gow says, “I’m yet to be tucked away in a dark corner of a club when they’re playing it and watching people but I look forward to that day and I know people kind of get that and appreciate the change in direction.”

Published on Purple Sneakers.