Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bitte Orca

There is no need for a song-by-song examination of The Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca. They all cohere into a trilling, thrilling whole. The numbers cast fond glances at art rock and modern R&B but refuse to settle in with either. The guitars are largely unplugged, with very little strumming, something which helps keep the songs unmoored and fresh even after multiple listens (I still can’t pin the individual tunes down in my head). Instead of riffs, there are complicated plucked figures – swirls of sounds that the voices can dance around. The drumming is splashy, crashing in when you least expect it, a necessary bit of violence to offset the delicacy of the vocals and guitars. It all comes together, song after song; in the enchanting backing vocal of “Cannibal Resource”, tossed at lightning speed between the three female vocalists; in the invigorating violence of “The Bride”; in the way “Fluorescent Half Dome” breaks down into what sounds like the end of the party and the dawn of a new day.

Bitte Orca’s that rare album which really is impossible to categorise, not because it hops or melds genres because it creates its own. If they are influences, they have been consumed and absorbed into the bloodstream of the band’s sound. Though I thought of Talking Heads the first time I heard them, and later Bjork (the band has collaborated with both), the Projectors are their own idiosyncratic snowflake. Talking Heads always seemed to be heading towards the groove in their songs; the Projectors are constantly dodging it (except on “Stillness is the Move”, a possible clue as to why this track was deemed most fit for radio play). And while they share Bjork’s off-kilter approach to vocalisation and sound, their harmonic juggling is based around melodies more welcoming than those of the combatively experimental Icelandic songstress.

No vocal combination has ever sounded the way the Projectors do on Bitte Orca. The reason is more than the sum of three superb female singers – Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, Haley Dekle – and Longstreth’s pleasant falsetto. It’s the way their voices are arranged, how they work in harmony and counterpoint to each other, how traditional ideas of backing vocals are transformed into something as unpredictable as birdsong. Most of the songs have Longstreth or one of the girls laying down the main melody, and the others circling and adding to it with little fills. Some of these interjections are like cuckoos peeping out of a clock, others like a bunch of children rushing through the door. The exhilaration of not knowing when or where the next voice is going to come at you from is what sets the Projectors apart from other superb contemporary vocal groups like the Fleet Foxes, who take their cues from the Beach Boys and other, more recognisable sources. It’s also what set Bitte Orca apart from the other albums released in 2009. And earlier that decade.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The winner by knockout: Coke Studio Pakistan

I thought it might be unfair to slam Coke Studio India for not matching up to the magnificence that is Coke Studio Pakistan. In its first week anyway. So I waited a month, and from what's been trotted out till now, it looks like that sudden burst of brilliance everyone here's been hoping for isn't forthcoming this season.

Two songs, one from our Coke Studio, the other from Pakistan's. "Chitthiye" is limpid, inoffensive, swamped by the same all-pervasive synth sound that won't leave any of CSI's songs alone. It's...what's the word...contented. "Alif Allah-Jugni", on the other hand, is a stream of energy so taut driving that it sounds like it couldn't settle down if it wanted to. Why this difference? It's not the singers; Chauhan and the Wadalis are in the same vocal league as Shafi and Lohar. It's in the attiutude. It's the difference between rock and pop. It's in the annoying girl-group chorus they have in "Chittiye". It's the reason why Pakistan produces great rock bands and we don't, and why their Coke Studio success is something we have not, and from the looks of it, will not replicate.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Hereafter begins with a recreation of the 2004 tsunami that devastated South-east Asia. It’s a tremendous sequence, eschewing overwrought visuals and concentrating on the suddenness and the sheer kinetics of the event. After it’s over, director Clint Eastwood seems to say, okay, everyone’s had their fun, now it's time to watch a real movie. The result is a film about the afterlife that’s moving at times but ends up frustratingly slight.

Matt Damon plays George Lonegan, a psychic whose talent is forging a “connection” with people who’ve recently lost someone close, and helping them contact the spirit. Marie Lelay is a French reporter who, after a near-death experience in the tsunami, has started having visions of her own. Marcus is a young British boy who can’t let go of the memory of his lost twin. Eastwood and writer Peter Morgan seem to set these stories up to converge, but then refuse to let them do so till the very end. Instead, we get subplot on subplot, some of which involve Marcus’s drug addict mom, a potential love interest for George (Bryce-Dallas Howard in fine form) and Marie writing a book on the afterlife. Compared to his earlier Frost/Nixon, Morgan’s script is a letdown, trading insight for generalities. And even though Eastwood provides a lovely score and some witty directorial touches – a driver pausing to check his breath as an afterthought after hitting a kid in the street, an aerial pan of San Francisco as a nod to the opening credits staple in the Dirty Harry series – his treatment of the dead is too restrained and polite to bring the screen alive.

A version of this review appeared in Time Out Delhi.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fair Game: DVD review

Fair Game is based on the real-life case of Valerie Plame, undercover operative with the CIA. Plame was outed by White House officials in 2003 after her husband, a former ambassador called Joseph Wilson, wrote an article exposing the false claims of the Bush government regarding the sale by Niger to Iraq of yellowcake uranium, allegedly to build WMDs. This effectively ended her career, though she fought back successfully, resulting in a Congressional committee sentencing the Vice President's chief of staff Scooter Libby to 30 months imprisonment. Fair Game, from Plame’s book of the same name, starts off strong. We follow Plame, played by Naomi Watts, on her covert operations, watch the build-up to the Iraq war, see Wilson’s malcontent manifest itself at dinner parties. Then Wilson (Sean Penn) writes his piece and the movie goes from political thriller to soggy domestic drama.

Director Doug Liman obviously wants us to feel as deeply for his characters as we do for their larger battles. The problem is that neither actor does much to warrant our sympathy for their marriage cracking at the seams. Penn is extremely dour until the last half hour, when he mutates into a speechifying crusader. Watts has an even more implausible transformation; she loses her steely resolve after the revelations and becomes another Hollywood movie damsel, making irrational decisions, in need of rescuing. The melodramatic script does neither actor any favours. As an expose of the Bush government, this movie feels dated (spoiler alert: there were no WMDs!). And as usual, the Iraqis are just a plot point, a way to illustrate how much the heroine cares, but not vital enough to keep around very long. No special features, which at these prices would seem to convey that the DVD-buying public here is fair game too.

A version of this piece appeared in Time Out Delhi.