Bum Notes

Ahead of starting my new “Composing Song Lyrics” module next semester, I wanted to do something different here and review the next album I listened to for the first time. That way, I’d have something to go with my review of the film Whiplash, which I posted here at the end of June. It was my birthday on Sunday, and at my request, Louis gave me one of the albums that I needed to plug a conspicuous hole in my vinyl collection – I was missing the final three Oasis records, of which Dig Out Your Soul is the last. Released in 2008, this seventh studio effort was also the seventh consecutive album by the Manchester icons to go to number one in the UK, and their last hurrah before their abrupt split in August 2009. As we have now arrived at the tenth anniversary of the event, it seems apt for me to tackle their last offering now, even if this did come about entirely by coincidence. Louis tells me that he chose Dig Out Your Soul because out of all my missing Oasis albums, “it had the prettiest cover”.

Dad plugged my record player back in – after it had spent the last couple of months in the garage following my return from university – and I listened to the album from start to finish with my notebook to hand. I tried to write something about every song, even if it was just a few words or a single sentence. For the opening track, “Bag It Up”, I wrote “raw, repetitive, lumbering juggernaut of a riff begins the album. Liam’s vocals are crisp but full of attitude.” As I soon discovered, those words presented me with a considerable problem – namely that I could pretty much say the same for every song. I’m not saying that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but as I got further into the album, I struggled to muster anything more adventurous, to the point where it felt like I was scraping the bottom of the barrel out of desperation at times.

I can see the decline in the notes I made. Of “The Turning”, the album’s second song, I was able to say that its opening was “soft and more subdued, with gentle drums and keyboards.” From this point, though, I can tell that I was gradually running out of any kind of valuable insight. All I could offer on “Waiting For The Rapture” was that it was “stylistically similar to the opening track”, and a throwaway reference to the fact that Noel Gallagher apparently wrote it about meeting his wife. It got even worse by the time of “Ain’t Got Nothin'”, another song full of attitude that only received a response of “typical Liam!” from me. I did redeem myself to some extent with certain judgements. I managed to specify that “The Shock of the Lightning” was “a great, unashamedly rock and roll anthem that would have been great to hear live”, and “I’m Outta Time” was a song that seemed to “unknowingly foreshadow” the fate of Oasis itself. Overall, though, my attempt to thoroughly review Dig Out Your Soul fell flat on its face – there were several songs about which I could say nothing at all.

I don’t think that’s a reflection on the quality of the album at all. There are only a select few records I’ve ever heard that I’ve categorically disliked. It’s more a reflection on my own reviewing abilities, and the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the depth I was looking for. I didn’t feel confident enough to try using any musical terminology either, and the end result was a set of notes that couldn’t have looked less knowledgeable if they’d tried. They’ve given me a reason to go back to the drawing board, but I’m going to look at that as a positive thing. Maybe my upcoming module will give me the insight into the songwriting process that I need to confidently discuss how music is made. At the very least, it’ll allow me to think about adding another string to my writing bow, and including more reviews here. Mum has told me they’d be well worth doing more often, so maybe – for once – I should take her advice on board!

Mason

 

Whiplash (2014)

From the very first scene of writer and director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, budding jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is presented as a man under pressure. Before we see him, we hear the rolling of his drum kit, getting faster and faster as he pushes himself to the limit, determined to improve and impress. When he is subsequently introduced to his formidable tutor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), he stops playing to greet him, only for Fletcher to ask why. He begins again, only to be challenged once more. Eventually, when Fletcher asks to hear Neiman’s rudiments in double time, he obliges, but becomes so engrossed that he does not initially see Fletcher leave the room. It is clear from the outset, then, that Neiman is not destined for an easy ride, and it’s this exchange that begins a dramatic student-teacher relationship. I was immediately both hooked and emotionally invested.

I felt my chest tighten seeing just how much pressure Neiman was under to succeed, as much from himself than anyone else. I shared in the intimidation he and his fellow Studio Band musicians felt in Fletcher’s presence, particularly when he is unleashing the full force of his fury upon them; Chazelle told Simmons to be “a monster, a gargoyle, an animal” during filming. He is established as a firm perfectionist who won’t think twice about punishing the band for rushing or dragging even by a fraction. His abuse is both physical and verbal, and we learn that a past student of his, Sean Casey, was driven to suicide as a result of his aggression. Nobody’s position in the band is safe, and many of the musicians are deliberately pushed to their physical limits in order to prove themselves. There are multiple scenes of sweat, blistered fingers and blood on the drums as they strive to play harder and faster to perfect a piece, and the sheer pain involved induced many a wince in me; I had never realised just what such determination can drive people to do. The strain is mental as well as physical; Neiman breaks up with his girlfriend and crawls out of the wreckage of a car accident in order to join the band at a performance, even though he is covered in blood and severely injured. The latter incident demonstrates just how Neiman’s priorities have changed as he looks to achieve greatness, and it also pushes him over the edge, as Fletcher’s lack of compassion leads Neiman to physically attack him on stage and get him fired.

At this point, relieved that Neiman’s torment was over, I assumed that the film’s conclusion would be smoother for him. The emotional rollercoaster continues, however, when Neiman, having subsequently abandoned drumming, re-encounters Fletcher at a club. They chat in a manner that is almost friendly, but I was convinced this was too good to be true. Sure enough, when Fletcher offers Neiman a drumming spot at a local festival, he reveals he knows Neiman got him fired, getting his revenge by forcing him to play a piece he has not learnt. Fletcher’s status as a total villain is sealed, as it seems he has humiliated Neiman in front of an audience. Neiman hits back with a performance that eventually earns Fletcher’s respect, and in the closing moments of the film the two exchange smiles. It’s a satisfying ending to something that toyed with me from the start. It’s what Chazelle and his cast do so well; I felt fear, anger, determination and disappointment, all alongside our protagonist, and that is surely the mark of a truly great film.

Mason

The Stage And The Stars

Prior to last weekend, I had been lucky enough to see three Shakespeare plays, and these opportunities all came during my A-Levels. I saw the first two – a modernised adaptation of Twelfth Night and a more traditional version of Romeo and Juliet – on trips to the University of Exeter, and I was then incredibly fortunate to see Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe Theatre in London. We studied the latter two plays as part of my English Literature course, and as we did so it was hard to notice the lack of enthusiasm creeping around the room at times. Maybe that was because we were made to read and endlessly analyse them, but I still thought it a shame to see. I knew these plays were great, and that everyone else would find them a lot easier to engage with when they saw them unfold on stage.

Sure enough, when we eventually did go on the trips, I could tell that they were more enthused by watching them in the flesh than any sweaty classroom reading. There’s a certain magic I feel watching a Shakespeare play that no other piece of theatre has, no matter how good it is. I’m not entirely sure what it is, or where it comes from, but I know for sure that I felt it again on Saturday night when I attended an outdoor production of Hamlet along with Mum. It was a warm and pleasant summer’s evening, and our surroundings weren’t bad either – that’s high praise coming from someone who doesn’t always get on with the countryside. The show was to be performed by the five members of a theatre group known as the Three Inch Fools, who would use only a simple wooden stage (adorned with a string of fairy lights for when it got dark) and the various props and costumes dotted around it to play multiple parts each. I was intrigued by this minimalist approach as soon as we arrived, and I liked the fact that everything had been laid bare for the audience to see.

I was not disappointed. I welcomed Shakespeare’s words again as though they were old friends, and every one was delivered beautifully by the actress behind Hamlet, Rose Reade, and the rest of the cast, whose projected voices were carried all the way through the audience and across the hills by the light breeze. Everyone present was both respectful of the actors and totally captivated by humour and pathos alike. The English language was a very different thing in Shakespeare’s day, but as it manifested itself in front of my eyes I had no trouble at all understanding and interpreting it. It felt almost like I had become suddenly and instantly fluent in French or another foreign tongue. This helped to make me very comfortable with what I was seeing, even when I was also on the edge of my seat – this was a feeling only exacerbated by how well the cast made the entire piece flow. Each actor was also an equally proficient singer and musician, and many of the props they performed with were traditional folk instruments that matched the time period the play was set in. In such gifted hands, these were able to provide excellent interludes that either served as useful bridges between scenes or illustrative devices at key points within them. Any movements to and from the stage were gentle and hardly noticeable, as was every costume change – anything slower or more stilted was made a part of the performance, usually with a line from one character that put another back on track. Not once did any of the cast slip out of character. If anything, with every passing scene they seemed even more at one with their roles. This added a little more comedy to every laugh, and a little more gravity to every tragedy – especially the multitude of deaths at the play’s climax.

I originally started writing this post on Sunday morning, only hours after we had returned from Hamlet. What prevented me from finishing it in one sitting was mainly my lack of confidence as a reviewer – I was worried about publishing it and appearing as though I had no idea what I was talking about (I might not anyway, but you can be the judge of that). Ultimately, though, I decided that it was more important for whoever did read this to know how much I appreciated the Three Inch Fools and the evening of first-class theatre they gave us. As that particular performance was the penultimate one on their summer tour, I was glad to have been able to see them before their break, and I have no doubt that everyone who sees them when they are next on stage will feel exactly the same way. Look them up if you haven’t already, and if you do feel inclined to witness them at their best, I am certain you won’t regret it in the slightest.

Mason