The Wedding Present (Leeds O2, 30 December)

The Wedding Present

Led by singer-songwriter-guitarist Dave Gedge and bursting on to the indie scene in the mid 80’s, the Weddoes delivered kitchen sink dramas in the form of jingly-jangly guitar pop buried in hyperactively thrashed guitars. There were always good songs in there but you had to find them over a few listens.

They disappeared from the indie charts almost as soon as they rose but continued to make records (for a while as Cinerama). The style remained similar though the thrash guitars retreated a little to let the songs out a bit more. And they continue to tour, playing the same mix of old and new stuff without fuss or accolades but with a core of pretty devoted followers.

Anyone who’s been to a Wedding Present gig pretty much knows what they’re going to get but that’s part of the fun. No requests – ever. Gedge has his playlist for the night and will not deviate from it, no matter how many people shout out for a particular song. No encores – ever. Gedge thinks they’re daft and stopped doing them in 1989.

The old songs are more popular with the crowd; perhaps they’re the strongest but a fair proportion of the crowd are of my age and older and heard the older songs, like me, when they were younger and so were more affected by them. Some of the new songs, to be released on a 2012 album, are excellent, even on first listen.

The band are solid but the focus is, as ever, Gedge himself. Between songs, his banter is minimalist; wry, funny, slightly taciturn – almost curmudgeonly – but, once the song starts, Gedge really inhabits the song, not just playing it but properly performing it. This, Fleet Foxes, is what stagemancraft is all about. Not quite my favourite gig of the year, but only because I’ve seen so many good ones already, and a fantastic way to end 2011.


Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)

Fight Club
I’m not going to start with a lame joke about “The first rule…” (ok, I am but I’m going to try to be all meta about it).

The film begins with Jack (Ed Norton) suffering badly from insomnia, and subsequent sleep deprivation, as he flies around the US investigating crash causes for a large auto company, to determine the level of risk to cost of a recall when a fault is identified in the car. Although the job is well rewarded financially, Jack is bored and dispirited and finds release in attending support groups – alcohol, drugs, cancer – anything where the attendees release emotion. For some reason, playing along allows Jack to sleep. When another “tourist”, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) starts attending, Jack no longer gets the same release and, after dividing the groups up with Marla, finds another release anyway…

On one of his trips, he makes friends with Tyler Durden, a soap salesman with a nihilist philosophy who mocks Jack’s buttoned-up world. On his return home from this flight, Jack finds his apartment burned down and calls on Tyler for a place to stay. After a few drinks, Tyler invites Jack to hit him. They fight and enjoy it and Jack no longer needs the support groups – fighting provides the release that lets him sleep. On the second occasion Jack and Tyler fight, other patrons leaving the bar see them and ask to join in, and the “Fight Club” is born.

Pretty soon, the Fight Club starts to grow, with new franchises opening up in major cities elsewhere but Tyler is taking the fight club over, with Jack relegated to the position of second in command. It also starts to take on a quasi-religious status with some pretty menacing aspects as their HQ doubles up as a bomb-making factory and Tyler won’t let Jack into his plans.

This is one movie where I didn’t really know anything about it, and the film was all the better for it. At the reveal, I cursed myself for not seeing it coming but also admired the audacity of it. Of the Fincher movies I’ve seen (Se7en and The Social Network being the others), this is easily the best, with some beautiful visual trickery seemingly effortlessly incorporated into the narrative and helping it along.

I’ve read that some people dislike the film because they think that we’re supposed to take Tyler’s philosophical pronouncements seriously; I don’t think this is true. Jack at one point says that one of Tyler’s arguments makes sense “in a Tyler sort of way” and I think this is what we’re supposed to appreciate – the appeal of an intelligent and charismatic person with confidence and vision, no matter how twisted, and the drive to make it happen. I’m not sure the basic concept works, since I don’t believe so many men are desperate to get beaten up as this suggests but, as a study in madness and extremism, it manages that suspension of disbelief pretty well.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011)

Hugo poster

Ok, firstly I watched this in the 2D version. Not my plan, but the combination of a start time an hour and a half later than ideal plus an eye-watering 40% (ish) mark-up on the admission price made the choice not to buy the 3D ticket a no-brainer. And yet, as the first sweeping shots made clear that Scorsese’s serious about 3D, I wondered whether I’d made a serious error. I’d be really interested to know, from those who’ve seen both versions, how much that extra dimension adds to the enjoyment of the viewing experience.

As it was, this 2D version was a real pleasure. A beautiful, sweet and charming paean to early cinema, it is a cinephile’s treat. Hugo (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan hiding away in a 1920’s French railway station, maintaining all the clocks and stealing from an in-station toy shop the pieces he needs to do this, and also to try and repair a mysterious clockwork automaton. Caught by the owner, Georges (Ben Kingsley), he is forced to give up both the stolen clockwork pieces and a notebook with detailed instructions on various aspects of the automaton. The notebook seems to upset Georges, who threatens to burn it, to Hugo’s utter despair. Following Georges to his home, Hugo befriends the toyshop owner’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloe Moretz), who promises to help him recover the book, regarding the whole thing as “an adventure” – and an adventure duly ensues, as they try to work out the mystery of Georges’ connection with the automaton.

Threat is provided by the station guard (Sacha Baron Cohen), a Clouseau-esque figure with a malfunctioning (clockwork, and the idea of people as well as machines sometimes needing repair, is a constant theme in the film) support for his war-wounded leg, callously rounding up waifs and strays to send to the orphanage while himself trying to find the confidence to approach a pretty flowerseller.

There are a host of minor characters played by an array of British acting talent but the real stars of this movie are old films themselves, several of which get played in snippets to “ground” this film, and some of which get replayed, either in recreations of the filming of them or in nods to them in Hugo’s own adventures (the film poster above takes it’s cue from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last) – some of the scenes of Hugo’s clockworks look rather like they are referencing Metropolis, as does the automaton itself. To me, who’s been trying to catch up on cinema’s history and watch as many classics as possible, a couple of these scenes looked a little clunky, like documentary lessons (albeit pleasant ones) in the middle of the movie but I imagine, for young viewers, they might well convey the wonder of cinema to its first audiences.

With some superb cinematography, excellent acting – not least from both the child leads – this is a proper family film, and is one of the best movies of the year.

Fleet Foxes (O2 Academy, Leeds, 1 December 2011)

Fleet Foxes

This was not a bad gig but it certainly wasn’t the best I’ve been to this year. In fact, it was probably the least good gig I’ve been to this year, and probably the most disappointing since a pretty drab Fall affair at the same venue last winter.

The support act, Vetiver, were solid enough, rattling through a variety of folk-pop-bluesey stuff – essentially melodic and pleasant pub rock but nothing wrong with that and it was delivered more than competently. At the end of their set, I was nicely prepared for the main act to come on and blow them away; this is what normally happens. I am pleasantly surprised by the support act and wonder if the main act will live up to their main billing. They invariably do and Fleet Foxes, being noted for musical craft, ought to be able to jump up a grade and make the evening really special. They didn’t.

Their musical craft was certainly up to the job. I’d wondered if their vocal harmonies, particularly, would suffer in a live environment and they didn’t at all. They can definitely perform the music but that was part of the problem. On CD, everything sounds pleasant. There’s Mykanos of course, and White Winter Hymnal, and… er Mykanos… and a lot of stuff that sort of blends into one another and a couple more that I recognise but don’t recall the title of. Sometimes, when this has happened with an album, a live performance is what brings these songs alive but Fleet Foxes didn’t manage this. At first, it seemed that they were going to, as they opened with a couple of thumping tracks that gave a kind of pagan ritual feeling to the songs but then they got bogged down with trying to recreate their sounds so perfectly that between every song, just about every member of the band (bar the drummer, and I swear he changed a cymbal at least once!) was changing an instrument and tuning it before the next song could begin. Even their USP, the great vocal harmonies, started to gall after a while with each of the songs being lost in “woah-woah-woah”-ness and one, that seemed to go on for hours like a prog-rock nightmare with a honking sax solo, was a total mess.

This constant dithering completely killed the mood and encouraged the drunks in the crowd to practice their hooting sound effects – not heckling but not in keeping with the mood of the music. The backdrop didn’t help either. There was a constant projection, ok when showing mountainscapes, starfields or swirling clouds but absurdly annoying when repeating patterns of geometric shapes filled and emptied the screen over and over and over… like the opening credits of a ’70s or ’80s children’s teatime sci-fi. It had the same hypnotically attractive but infuriating pull that a tv in a pub has when it screens rolling sport or news just on the edge of your vision. It distracts you and annoys you but you just can’t stop looking.

After the break, lead singer Robin Pecknold came out and did a couple of solo songs and this reminded me of just how good their songs can be, when not over-elaborated. Then the rest of the band came on and they went back into the bland.

I wondered whether it was just me; was I in a bad mood or otherwise just not in the right frame of mind to appreciate them? Maybe they just weren’t to my taste. As I left, among a few “amazing!” -s, I heard many more “fucking boring” and, outside, one “well musically they were great but they need to learn stagecraft”, to which I couldn’t help but reply “too fucking right!”.

It seems strange after all this to say that I still like them but I do. I just don’t think I’d go to see them live again.