Scaling the Action Severely Down, a Black-Box “Trainspotting” Comes Up Aces

Having parted with 55 bucks for the privilege, Trainspotting Live attendees can expect to be variously insulted, spat upon, shouted at, drizzled with the contents of a shit-smeared toilet, and forced into extreme proximity to both male asshole and uncut Scottish dong. You will, if you choose to insert yourself among the forty or so willing captives cloistered within the airless confines of Roy Arias Stages’ slender black box above Eighth Avenue, be menaced by a madman with a shiv and subjected to seizure-level strobes; in one especially harrowing passage, you’ll endure the sight and up-close shrieks of a pregnant woman battered with fists and choked with a belt. When the makers of this thing warn you that it’s an “immersive” interpretation, you’d better damn well take them at their word.

You will also, if you’re anything like me — or like my fellow captives at both of two showings I caught last week, who responded at play’s end with a roistering standing O — find yourself emerging from this dirty little chamber, this fetid box with obscenities scrawled all over its walls, astonished by how moving the experience wound up being. At some point along its 75 minutes, so slyly as to be almost imperceptible, this Trainspotting shifts gears from gross-out comedy to poignant cautionary tale, buoyed by a pair of dazzling performances.

Not that you haven’t seen precisely the same trick before; it is, after all, what made the original Trainspotting film such a marvel, this protean ability to fire on every cylinder it assayed, moving with effortless grace (per Danny Boyle’s assured string-pulling) from flaneur cult comedy to crime caper to sneakily tear-jerking bildungsroman. Trainspotting Live might not enjoy the same success with each of the guises it tries on — a game Tom Chandler can’t quite replicate Robert Carlyle’s glowering volatility as Francis Begbie, and Tariq Malik is somewhat wasted, excuse the pun, in the bottle-blond Sick Boy role — and yet it does manage, sans proscenium or even much of an actual plot, to effect much of the same emotional gravitas.

Here’s the thing, though: Trainspotting, as in that 1996 film everyone you know saw, is just one of many, many vehicles for a cast of characters that — it’s by now well proven — can hardly be contained within a single movie, or genre, or indeed even format. That you’ll be willing to accept the goings-on within this particular, erm, staging — that “Why the black box?” or “Why no fourth wall?” will likely hardly even register as what might be an expected sort of prima facie question — is probably down to a certain priming achieved by all those previous iterations with which you (self-selecting, willing captive) are no doubt at least marginally familiar. For, at this point, Trainspotting isn’t just a novel, or the stage play based thereon (the one you’ve read about that featured Ewen Bremner, soon to be immortalized as Spud, as Mark Renton), or the famous film that catapulted Ewan McGregor (as Renton) to international superstardom, or the prequel Irvine Welsh then wrote, or the sequel, or the underwhelming screen adaptation of that sequel, or the occasional other Welsh story in which one of these people pops up. It’s more like an extended Trainspotting universe by now, which Trainspotting Live knows — dig that reference to The Acid House impastoed prominently along one wall — which means that rarely has such a batshit idea made such intuitive sense.

Even so, the architects of Trainspotting Live have settled on a strategy of keeping things grounded in the familiar, at least in terms of scene-specific content. The beats here largely follow those of the 1996 film, though with Spud wholly absent, having been composited, in a kind of half-and-half way, into Renton (Andrew Barrett) and Tommy (co-director Greg Esplin); the famous sequence in which Spud wakes up in an unfamiliar, pink-sheeted bedroom, covered in his own sick and shit, now goes to the former, while it’s Tommy — given Spud’s last name of Murphy — who gets the whole amphetamine-aided job-interview jag. At least for its first two-thirds, Trainspotting Live is structured as a procession of these tableaux, without much in the way of seeming rhyme or reason as to what follows what, and with the occasional non-film scene mortared in between the hits: The “Choose Life” monologue (ad-libbed, on the second night I went, to include a brief berating of a late-arriving audience member) gives way to an Ecstasy-fueled rave, which yields, the hungover morning after, the bed-shitting episode; but after that there’s a cutaway to a scene in which someone called Laura McEwan (Lauren Downie), attempting to lose her “anal virginity,” accidentally lubes up poor Tommy’s excited member with Vicks VapoRub.

Brothers of the spiked vein: Esplin as Tommy, Barrett as Renton

From there we’re into Begbie’s introduction (the “pool cue” speech, roughly verbatim from the film), Sick Boy calling the audience a bunch of cowards, the DHSS interview, an unfortunate encounter with a West Ham United fan, the “relinquishing junk” grocery list, the sequence involving opium suppositories being inadvertently shat into the “worst toilet in Scotland,” whereupon they must be retrieved, by hand, with no shortage of splashing…etc. I don’t mean to minimize some of the fine acting on display throughout this much of Trainspotting Live — Barrett’s a charismatic wonder with precisely the lithe build of the young McGregor, which I can attest because a goodly chunk of the early proceedings features the actor completely, unabashedly nude; Esplin, meantime, shows early signs of stealing the show — but at this point I couldn’t shake the feeling of watching a lesser-than run-through of the film, with deleted scenes thrown in to ensure I was getting my money’s worth.

But then something unexpected happens: Call it gravity descending. It starts with a pair of domestic-violence segments, the first set in a pub (setting, by the way, is left to a sort of chorus of all the actors uninvolved in a scene to deliver by way of quick-cutting cross talk) in which Tommy attempts to intervene in a lovers’ quarrel rapidly becoming ugly; the episode ends with the woman defending her abuser and lashing out at the interloper. The second — likewise from the original novel but not in the movie — features a rare glimpse at Begbie on the home front, threatening to walk out and then doing far, far worse to his pregnant paramour. If this little diptych doesn’t exactly initiate a firmer plot (say, the way the film does with the “big score” storyline), it at least signals a shift in tone, away from the bawdy early incidents and into altogether heavier subject matter.

As if to emphasize this descent into darkness, Trainspotting Live spends the remainder of its running time in the heavily shadowed heroin-dealing den of the Mother Superior (Olivier Sublet), and in Tommy’s threadbare apartment, no more than a mattress on a floor, Tommy having persuaded Renton to let him try the skag, gotten hooked, and contracted HIV by way of the needle. And here not even a choice bit of badinage (Sick Boy calls Renton “skinny Uncle Fester”; Renton retorts that his mate’s a “knockoff Andy Warhol”) or the Mother Superior’s planting one on a supine, doped-up Tommy can lighten the mood to within a mile of that earlier comic lightness; any audience involvement seems, by this point, completely out of the question. Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” issues softly, as if from another room (Tom Lishman’s sound design is an understated beauty throughout); out-of-scene characters repeat an earlier line about junk making its user seem somehow childlike and beautiful, this time to haunting effect, not to be quite believed. Staggering to his mattress, Esplin’s naked Tommy spits up blood before curling arthritically into a fetal posture; in a gravelly, attenuated voice bearing not a trace of his earlier vim and vigor, he accuses Renton, too, of having shared needles in his day, a useless protestation against the injustice of it all.

What you will remember from Trainspotting Live, after all’s said and done — what you will step out of the little room and down the stairs and back out onto Eighth still reeling from — won’t have much to do with the gamesmanship afforded the play by dint of its “clever” presentation, nor the swearing, the nudity, the toilet humor or toilet nastiness, not even the on-the-nose title-repeating clunker of a final line. What’ll be emblazoned in your mind’s eye will be the trad-actorly work put in, especially toward the end, by the magnificent Esplin and Barrett, their pair of friends, formerly ablaze with life, reduced to tearstained twin husks howling at the void. Maybe, as if in relief, it’s the modish comic setup that permits this late tragic transcendence. In the end, though, Trainspotting Live attains its raw power the same way the theater’s been doing it since time immemorial: through committed — incredibly committed — performance.

Trainspotting Live
Roy Arias Stages, 777 Theatre
777 Eighth Avenue
Open run


Arctic Monkeys Jettison Their Guitars and Shoot the Moon

Call it the inevitable surprise. The story of Arctic Monkeys’ career to date being that of a gradual gentling in their guitar attack, the logical end point was an album with hardly any guitars or attack at all. One counts the days till some clever wag dubs the new Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino the band’s Kid A. [Ed. Note: Mike, you can stop counting now.]

It isn’t. It’s not that left-field, more the latest stage in an evolution going all the way back: to the clattering bar fights of their debut, the 2006 U.K. smash Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, which gave way to the more polished but equally pummeling Favourite Worst Nightmare (2007), which begat the brooding self-doubt of Humbug (2009), the crooned pop balladry of 2011’s Suck It and See, the locked grooves of 2013’s A.M. Across that span, you’d have noticed less and less of the often punishing pace and oddball serrated riffage that had been the band’s early stock-in-trade, with the boys seeming bound and determined to bevel out and lacquer over their formerly jagged little thrills.

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We’re given to understand this had something to do with cracking the tough-nut U.S. market, with respect to which their success has been a mixed bag. A.M. went platinum this side of the pond, getting Arctic Monkeys as bigly exposed as a sold-out night at MSG, but still failed to make theirs a household name stateside. Meanwhile, there continues to be a vocal contingent in the fan base here — call it the backward-hatted faction — clamoring for a return to the snottier, more aggro “early stuff.” Arctic Monkeys can’t win for losing.

Accordingly, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino begins with the sound of lead man Alex Turner tossing up his hands as to what’s liable to stick in a country as savagely fickle as ours. “I just wanted to be one of the Strokes,” he intones. “Now look at the mess you’ve made me make/Hitchhiking with a monogrammed suitcase/Miles away from any half-useful imaginary highway.”

The track, “Star Treatment,” will go on to posit an alternate-universe version of Turner: a frontman who was “a little too wild in the Seventies” (the actual frontman was nowhere near alive for that decade) and who presently finds himself crashing “back down to Earth with a lounge-singer shimmer/Elevator down to my make-believe residency from the honeymoon suite/Two shows a day, four nights a week/Easy money.” Or maybe that’s the psychic state in which the real Turner now finds himself, his band’s heady early days well in the rearview as he reckons with having softened the group’s approach in search of a sort of broad palatability, one that still didn’t get him quite where he’d hoped to be.

But while the downtempo arrangements — and relative absence of any sound for which sawtooth might seem a fitting descriptor — may mark this new batch as of a superficial piece with A.M., here those elements work toward far different ends. Tranquility Base is as cagey and anxious as A.M. was a slickly assured unit-shifter; the new album’s chockablock with self-lacerating lyrics (“I’m so full of shite,” e.g.) and meandering, irresolute melodic lines. Even the grooviest-sounding thing here, “Four Out of Five,” turns out to be a Trojan horse for Turner’s mordant irony as he plays dubious real estate pitchman:

Come and stay with us
It’s such an easy flight
Cute new places keep on popping up
Since the exodus it’s all getting gentrified
I put a taqueria on the roof
It was well-reviewed
Four stars out of five
And that’s unheard of.

Now is probably as good a time as any to note that the hot new property his narrator’s shilling for isn’t on this planet; it’s on the moon, “around Clavius” to be precise, with the “exodus” referring to a speculative and apparently very literal kind of white flight. Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino is a concept album, see — a loose one, maybe, but still — and, that being the case, also a license for getting out of Turner’s usual lyrical, um, orbit. Gone are the straight-ahead character sketches, the wry accounts of wasted nightlife, of young romance, of oily pimps and douchebag strivers and irresistible femmes fatales and guys in tracksuits you’d best avoid after they’ve got a pint or two in ’em. And in their place…well, what?

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As Turner has aged, his lyrics have shied away from making themselves amenable to easy reading. He remains a writer without peer in virtually all of rock, but he’s become, over the years, brick by brick more oblique and abstruse — more apt, too, to adopt the perspective of somebody else entirely, and so more editorially unreliable. See, for example, the new album’s title track, where he tries on a new persona (hardly the only thing Bowie-esque about the song, it bears noting): “Good afternoon, Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino/Mark speaking/Please tell me, how may I direct your call?” If you don’t think that’s Turner being willfully opaque, consider the non sequitur that concludes “One Point Perspective” (“Bear with me, man, I lost my train of thought”) or this triplet, from “She Looks Like Fun”: “Finally I can share with you through cloudy skies/Every whimsical thought that enters my mind/There ain’t no limit to the length of the dickheads we can be.”

So while one might catch the occasional passing mention of the “apocalypse” that necessitated that lunar sojourn — and while one can certainly enjoy Turner’s trademark rapid-fire prosody and facility with internal rhyme on their own merits — identifying anything like an overarching story line is probably a futile exercise, especially given how that thread is forced to share airtime with all the career-retrospection. Besides, concept albums are only ever as good as their actual melodic material, which is why no one cared that Sgt. Pepper abandoned its conceit two songs in, and why no one listens to Dark Side of the Moon for Roger Waters’s thoughts on being and nothingness.

And here’s where Tranquility Base is most characteristic of the Arctic Monkeys oeuvre: It’s another wildly uneven work, song-quality wise, from an act you’d be hard-pressed to call a great “album” band. The record’s noticeably front-loaded, for one thing, failing to achieve much of any interest beyond the midpoint. “She Looks Like Fun” turns out to be an interminable bore; “The Ultracheese,” living up to its name, pure schmaltzy schlock.

On the other hand, “Star Treatment” nicely sets the mood, all plodding jazz borne on the breeze of a tinkly piano until the welcome drama of a gloomily repeated low-end figure, and never mind if the chord changes take the proceedings dangerously close to Steely Dan. The title song, meantime, manages to accomplish in about ten seconds what Turner could fill up notebooks trying to convey, its restless swept arpeggios and implacable-machine bassline conjuring the kind of deep-space dread for which one usually has to turn to films like 2001 — this even as the lyrics (“Jesus in the day spa, filling out the information form/Mama got her hair done, just popping out to sing a protest song”) remain as elusive as radio waves careering through infinite space. Then there’s high-water mark “Four Out of Five,” its killer cool and pure-pleasure harmonies belying an escalating desperation.

Thankfully, then, Arctic Monkeys still know their way around a good hook — guitars or no. As to the next phase in their continuing evolution, one hopes it’ll finally be the album that, whatever its thematic concerns, comes packed cover to cover without a skippable cut in the lot. Till then, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino will have contributed a handful more tracks to what is, no doubt, a very fine best-of playlist:


Gloves Off

Here’s a shocker: What might’ve seemed an ill-advised sequel to a surprisingly not-bad little hockey comedy is…surprisingly not-bad! In fact in some ways Goon: Last of the Enforcers actually manages to improve upon its forebear, connecting on jabs at a rate roughly equal to that of the earlier film but this time — if you’ll pardon yet more in the way of this figurative pugilism — mixing in some gut-punches, too.

It does all this, first, by recognizing the strengths of the original Goon, chief among them a kind of provincial humility. If you’d worried that Last of the Enforcers would succumb to the temptation, so typical of sequels, to go bigger, grander, glossier — say, to strain all semblance of believability by thrusting lovable-dimwit hero Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) onto the NHL stage — fear not. In something like a stroke of genius, the movie does exactly the inverse, beginning with news of a big-league lockout that has forced some of the top talent down, onto teams in the sticks. Thus does rising star/loose cannon/villain Anders Cain (Wyatt Russell) wind up with the hotshots from, uh, Reading, Pennsylvania, which becomes fodder for the kind of punchline Goon excels at: The Keystone State burgh, one player on our Halifax Highlanders claims, is populated solely by “translucent Rust Belt weirdos.” And as Cain adds, after being told that, given the infusion of star power into this division, the whole world is watching, “Maybe not the world. I mean, Canada, probably. And, like, three or four states.”

That’s about right for hockey, whose fans take a certain perverse pride in the sport’s fringe appeal — and who are, as this follow-up never forgets, pretty much the only people who will ever care to see it. Last of the Enforcers is a film made not only for but in many cases by this sort of person, at least judging from the pedigree of many of the folks involved in its creation: Wyatt Russell, himself a former professional goalie, has already portrayed a member of the Philadelphia Flyers (This Is 40) and is of course the son of Kurt, who in Miracle played famed U.S. men’s head coach Herb Brooks; Elisha Cuthbert, here in a smallish role, is married to Ottawa Senators tough guy Dion Phaneuf; Jay Baruchel, making his feature-directorial debut, is a Montreal Canadiens diehard. (Baruchel also wisely keeps the scenes featuring his own character, the obnoxious Pat, to a minimum — another improvement over the first Goon.)

Beyond that, there are still plenty of red-meat inside jokes here: The Highlanders’ French Canadian centerpiece, Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-André Grondin), who simply must have been inspired by the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Kris Letang, is still a human highlight reel who amazes the radio announcer when he deigns, for once, to play a little defense; one Eastern European opponent is an inscrutable eight-foot-tall behemoth apt to yell things like “Make shoot!”; the goalies are all total nutjobs. Nor is there any shortage of the earlier entry’s empty-headed stoner humor — see the idiot way Doug signs his name to a contract in a child’s all-majuscule hand, how he believes he has to explain to a friend and fellow fighter (Liev Schreiber) that a hot dog is “like a sausage sandwich,” how he answers his wife’s (Alison Pill) distressed phone call with “Eva, hello! It’s me, Doug Glatt!”

But there’s also some pointed satire this time around, a new gravity that takes the franchise beyond the first film’s m.o. of cutting all the, ahem, locker-room talk with moments of unexpected tenderness. Any follower of hockey would have to be denser than Dougie not to apprehend how this sequel comments on the troubling state of affairs in the sport — the frequent lockouts, for one, but also, more alarming, the professional game’s propensity for encouraging “enforcers,” those players who earn their living largely with their fists, before it effectively spits them out following a few years’ service. Where, exactly, are they meant to go from there? Head-traumatized, strung out on pain meds, and adrift in a world that seems not to have much more use for them, several notable exponents of the style have taken their own lives. Last of the Enforcers’ cleverest conceit is an event, dubbed “Bruised and Battered,” wherein these “retired fourth-liners” dispense with all pretext and suit up expressly for the purpose of bashing each other’s brains in over the course of what is essentially a cage match on ice (“a hockey tournament,” goes the billing, “with only one rule: no hockey”). It’s a trenchant riff on the old line about going to a fight and a hockey game breaking out; that it comes from a movie so otherwise besotted with the sport, and amid so much sillier lowbrow comedy, is no mean feat — and reason enough to recommend this new Goon.

Goon: Last of the Enforcers
Directed by Jay Baruchel
Momentum Pictures
Opens September 1, Cinema Village


Only “Humanz”

More than one friend’s been heard to remark, of Damon Albarn’s now two-decade-strong Gorillaz project, that first hearing them was like being slapped rudely awake to the future of pop. They’re typically referring, these friends, to the halcyon spring of 2001 and the contact high copped from debut single “Clint Eastwood,” which telegraphed much of what was to follow on the self-titled LP: a seemingly absurd farrago of hip-hop, punk, funk, reggae, J-pop, a saucerful of Floyd, a smattering of what was then known as dubstep. And yet it felt of a piece, this batshit cross-pollination, united under an approximate key of what it must be like to ride the Tokyo subway all night in the year 2020, possibly (probably) while on acid. Classical nuzzled up to rap; a Cuban bolero nested on a sample from the guy who’d once written the theme for the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage. Just running down all the ingredients that went into this bitches brew seemed to anticipate the tab-poppin’ rabbit-holes of Web 2.0. And all this from a scrawny Londoner best known for helping, with Blur, to define Britpop, a retrograde style if ever there was one.

Sixteen years later, Albarn’s genre-jumping busyness is almost a punchline — dude wrote a Chinese opera, ffs — while the world his cartoon band more or less presaged has perhaps outstripped our own ability to forecast what it’ll come up with next. Gorillaz, meantime, proved a serial disappearing act, going silent for five years at a stretch before emerging again, always in the spring, with a kind of inevitable surprise. The infrequency has reinforced what appears to have been Albarn’s plan from the outset, that the project would operate according to discrete “phases,” enlisting new players (and producers) each go-round. Hence the hermetic polish of 2005’s paranoid Demon Days, the candy-colored tangerine dream of Plastic Beach (2010). But obscured by this stratagem, there’s another storyline: Across these releases, Gorillaz have seemed less and less predictive of some polyglot future Earth and more and more descriptive of the rather disappointing one we’re already living on.

Still, if Plastic Beach‘s dyspeptic fantasia pointed up a looming real-world cataclysm, it did so with enough great big shots of sugar to make the medicine go down. So: What of the new Humanz, which as you might guess from the title marks the next stage of this…evolution? The cartoon universe persists as a matter of course, but never has it felt so secondary to the work’s flesh-and-blood cast. Currency, or cachet, would appear to be the watchword this time around. Among the guests: Pusha T, Jehnny Beth, Vince Staples, Danny Brown. Among the things on their mind: how you get by — how you’re even meant to countenance something like love — while staring down a culture vast swaths of which regard a peaceable movement for fair treatment by police as a terrorist front. As Staples warns (or pleads) on “Ascension,” Humanz‘ first proper number, “Don’t be coming ’round Vince/On that batter-ram shit.”

He goes on to intone something like a mantra: “The sky is falling, baby/Drop that ass ‘fore it crash,” as concise a summary of the Gorillaz m.o. — to throw a rager in the face of Armageddon — as you’re likely to find. Or at least that’s been the m.o. since Plastic Beach, which Humanz shortly reveals itself as possibly aping (sorry) in other ways. In place of Snoop getting the party started, we have fellow Long Beach MC Staples. Gravity descends with “Saturnz Barz,” this LP’s “Rhinestone Eyes.” But if you were expecting a “Stylo” to ratchet matters up yet further, instead you’ll find that Humanz smash-cuts right to this album’s whimsical De La Soul feature. Later, there’s Roses Gabor and Kelela in roughly the roles Little Dragon played; Anthony Hamilton inviting you to a “Carnival” where Mos Def once barked for a shell game; and Benjamin Clementine subbing for the late, great Bobby Womack on a wistful penultimate track (Clementine is 28 but sounds several decades older).

To be clear, these are all good tunes. I’m particularly enamored, at the moment, with the spidery dancehall of “Saturnz Barz” and with “Charger,” the Grace Jones feature, which builds on a wobbly ostinato and braids her cryptic “I am the ghost/I am the sword” — no telling what she might mean, but it sounds badass — around Albarn’s stolid baritone. And after ten or so plays, others are starting to grow on me, as is always the case with detail-dense Gorillaz compositions. It’s just that, by mapping so readily onto the rubric its forerunner laid out, Humanz calls undue attention to those places it pales in comparison: no climactic heights on the order of “Rhinestone Eyes”–into-“Stylo,” no melody quite as sticky as “On Melancholy Hill,” no “Pirate Jet” gut-punch to send you home.

The closer here, in fact, is maybe the most unfortunate thing Gorillaz have released, a two-minute affirmation/headache much ballyhooed for featuring longtime Albarn rival Noel Gallagher (but is burying the Oasis bro with the low harmony really any way to bury a hatchet?). It’s called “We Got the Power,” and if I wanted to get cute I’d suggest that indeed we do — the power, in this day and age, to omit it from the playlist. What we’d be left with is a solid effort, maybe better than solid, just not the tour de force of previous Gorillaz albums. Bit of a shame, as their message has never been more timely.



Gang Agley: The Sequel to “Trainspotting” Is an Uneven Mess, but That’s Not the Worst Thing About It

Consider, before you consider anything else about the sequel to Trainspotting, that the director of both films is an artist whose signal trait had been a seeming repulsion at the thought of ever going back to the well. Between the original and the new T2 (cheeky title, innit), Danny Boyle gave us the following: a black-comic romance, an island adventure, a zombie horror, a kids flick, a sci-fi, an Indian melodrama, a nature survival picture, a heist film, and a biopic.

That Boyle would break from his pattern of not having a pattern was cause, I think, for at least mild alarm among the faithful. Why do this? Why now? And why take the risk? Beyond the futile task of ever measuring up to a movie considered in some quarters (read: casa mia) to be a masterpiece, a limp follow-up might retroactively stain the first installment. Exhibit A: the Matrix trilogy…

Now, if you think that’s unfair — if you think this expansion on the Irvine Welsh Cinematic Universe ought to be appraised and adjudged entirely on its own merits — know that T2 makes this virtually impossible, even more so than most sequels. This is a film that takes every chance it gets to ape, echo, or literally splice in twenty-year-old footage from its formidable forerunner. The plot, which finds Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returning to his native Edinburgh, rescuing Danny “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) from taking his own life, and running afoul of Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) and Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), both of whom remain murderously vexed with Rents for having made off with their share of the big smack deal that concluded Trainspotting the first, eventually wends its way around to a (slight) variation on that same outcome. Before it gets there, the movie finds ways to alight on several locations and duplicate several precise shots from the original; cue the honeyed splices. Cue, too, at least four songs used on the earlier soundtrack (Eno, Iggy, Lou, “Born Slippy”). There are, again, multiple fir fuck’s sake!s; someone calls someone else a doss cunt, again. Renton, at the slightest provocation, and in a scene serving zero other purpose than to let him, reels off an updated, noticeably purpler “Choose Life” monologue. Diane (Kelly Macdonald) makes a sillily brief appearance, presumably for the sake of squeezing in an obvious line about how Mark’s current bird is too young for him. McGregor sneers that sneer. Bremner gawps his gawp.

Meantime, when they’re not busy self-referencing, T2‘s creators have no idea what kind of movie they want this to be. Renton and Sick Boy eventually come to terms, more or less, the former aiding and abetting in Simon’s various scams to drum up money for his fledgling business (which is either a pub or a sauna or a brothel, maybe all three). So is T2 a buddy picture, a comic crime caper? Maybe, except then there’s Begbie, freshly escaped from prison and now not so much a drunken brawler as some kind of Midlothian terminator, stalking and stabbing and garroting his prey; in these passages Boyle dips liberally into horror and suspense. And this is to say nothing of all the rather underdeveloped father-son stuff going on: There’s an out-of-left-field glossing of the chapter from the original novel where the crew run into Begbie’s father, the dipsomaniacal trainspotter of the title, in a rail station; and now Begbie’s got a grown son of his own, with whom he gets a scene that might have been touching if it didn’t come right in the middle of his savagely hunting down Mark Renton.

Not all these bits are bad. The lead-up to Spud’s attempt at self-nullification, as well as an early sequence of the recovering addict in a twelve-step meeting, are nearly as poignant as anything in the first film (and might have, with due expansion, made for a better spin-off). Conversely, T2 comes singing to life after Renton and Sick Boy’s first score, as they’re hoovering up rails of coke and talking over each other so furiously that Boyle decides to subtitle the exchange in quick-crashing waves of evaporating text. (Likewise, the single episode of heroin-relapse is a cracker, which might make you wonder whether the sequel to a film about dopers should’ve maybe included more, you know, dope.) But for each inspired moment, there’s something doubly deflating: the snatch of dialogue in which Sick Boy explicitly lays out the beats of the plot to come; the overall tendency toward the cheap crowdpleaser punchline; yet more of those oblique-angle shots Boyle’s come to favor and is now piling on to the point of distraction.

All of which gestures toward the bigger problem with the picture: It’s as if the filmmakers recognized the wanness of the material and settled on a strategy of padding it out with empty high style on the one hand and clever meta awareness on the other. Toward the end of T2 comes the curious development of Spud’s becoming a writer — and what he’s writing, on rumpled yellow pages in an unsteady hand, is Trainspotting, as in Welsh’s novel; snatching a sheet, Begbie reads out what is the real-life book’s opening line, The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy. What we’re meant to take from this is unclear, but there’s a suggestion to it, and the suggestion is more than a little cynical: that T2 is, in the final accounting, nothing more than a two-hour advertisement for itself, for the book that begat the movie that begat the movie that begat the book, and its creators are telling you they needn’t do more than keep you trapped within this circularity, where Spud is forever hapless and Begbie forever volatile and Sick Boy forever scheming and Renton forever fucking up at going straight, and you’ll eat it right up because that’s how it was when you fell in love with them. As Sick Boy says to Renton, in perhaps T2‘s most thoroughly transparent moment, “Nostalgia — that’s why you’re here.”

The audience at the screening I attended gave the closing credits a thumping ovation.

T2 Trainspotting
Directed by Danny Boyle
TriStar Pictures
Opens March 17, Regal Union Square and AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13



Das Jackboot: Don’t Sleep on Netflix’s ‘NSU: German History X’

You can have your houses of cards, your Jessica Joneses, your wet hot American summers. The Netflix original with its finger firmest on the pulse of our fraught current moment? It comes from Germany, comprises three feature-length “episodes,” and commences its tale over a quarter-century ago.

NSU: Germany History X (as it’s being called stateside, in what amounts to a bald play to U.S. audiences’ prior associations) begins in 1989, just after the toppling of the Berlin Wall — an event that comes to bear, in ways profound and mundane, on the lives of Part One’s three principals: Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Mundlos, and Uwe Böhnhardt. If those names seem familiar, it’s because they made international news not long ago, having finally been linked, in 2011, to a spate of murders and bombings over the previous decade. How the group got from A to B — from tooling around the formerly East German town of Jena to allegedly carrying out terrorist violence in the name of the National Socialist Underground — is the narrative arc described by NSU‘s first installment.

Sound sensationalist? Fear not. The broad strokes might read like Michael Bay, but the execution’s more like Kieslowski: It’s the why, not the what, this docudrama is interested in. The series’ genius lies in its studied avoidance of exploiting (or, worse, exulting in) the grisly fate its plot pushes toward. This first chapter, in fact, only goes so far as sketching a single murder, that of ethnic Turk and florist Enver Simsek in 2000, and it only gets there in its waning moments; that “nine more will follow” is left to a closing title card to convey.

Instead what we get is sociologic in scope and rendered with a novelist’s eye for telling detail: The sudden proliferation in consumer brands (yogurt, beer, hairspray) is as central to these characters’ lives as any speechifying from the Bundestag; Beate’s and “Böhni’s” penchant for petty thuggery gets as much airtime as any nefarious plotting (most of it bungled at that). The pace doesn’t quite meander, but it’s in no particular hurry, either, with long static shots filmed from far enough away for us to glean a sense of place, to feel as though we’re inhabiting a corner of Europe as it might actually have existed. And what’s there but blight and decay, depression and stagnant wages — and, for this cohort, the facile but beguiling notion that their birthright has been usurped by foreigners, a perceived Jewish financial elite, and the bleeding hearts who accommodate both.

German History X takes upon itself the task of making this psychology understandable, if perhaps not quite relatable. With rare nuance and rarer sympathy the show nails the appeal of fringe movements to those most vulnerable/amenable. It makes no bones about its central figures falling under the sway, broadly, of an ultra-right nationalist politics, but it is also careful to point up the basic human motivations that permit such an extreme worldview to gain purchase: the enfolding blanket of belonging offered by this community, such as it is; the licit outlet for viciousness that community affords; the seductive promise of actually mattering in the world.

In so doing the show offers a round rebuke of the contemporary echo chamber — looking at you, Reddit — which tends to process each successive incidence of mass murder by filing it under a readymade heading (ISIS! neo-Nazis! lone wolf!), bewailing how the media always handles these things (don’t even print the bad guys’ names!), then moving on to the next attack (as soon, that is, as media reports surface). That’s a fundamentally dismissive practice, one that suggests the individual pathology at play isn’t worth examining. It’s here that NSU provides a sorely needed, though far from clear-cut, corrective. Militaristic Mundlos may be a true believer (just look at that faraway fascist smile as he marvels, “The people are finally starting to get it!”), but most of his energies go to wrangling the other two members of his cell, who have become, to him, closer than family. Beate and Böhni, meanwhile, are fairly stupid and might be sociopaths, but they aren’t otherwise mentally deficient; conversely, they might crack the odd joke about the soap at Buchenwald but aren’t otherwise fluent in the ideology they (nominally) espouse. So why do they do what they do? The truth, as ever, lurks deep in the gray.

As for where the terrific, poignant Part Two takes things, in a hard left to beat all hard lefts, it’d be unfair to spoil that — except to say that for all of you who harp on coverage of perpetrators vis-à-vis victims, here’s your chance to put your money where your mouth is.

NSU: German History X (Mitten in Deutschland: NSU)
Available now


In Praise of the Wizard: George Martin, 1926–2016

Yes, yes, you’ll say, leave it to a copy editor to panegyrize the seldom-glimpsed technician, the trouper behind the scenes, the un- or the undersung. (Also, to dance around the first-person in a way he’d surely ax from other such overcooked prose.) This one won’t deny the vocational kinship: Much like the put-upon c.e.’s, the music producer’s is a task, frequently thankless, of taking the raw material furnished — be it near to brilliance or in need of deep reassessment — and giving it that fine polish by which it becomes fit for the world. Both endeavors are necessarily (all this barely suppressed first-person notwithstanding) self-effacing. Whatever the name of the game is, it ain’t personal glory or aggrandizement. You — the reader, the listener — are emphatically not meant to pay any attention to the man behind the curtain.

All of which might seem weird to say of a fellow known as “the fifth Beatle.” As producers/engineers/arrangers go, George Martin was/is/shall ever remain pretty damn famous. He’s maybe the most famous producer of all time, in fact — particularly if we’re talking in terms of producers qua producers, and not figures known just as much or more for scandal (Phil Spector), business savvy (Dr. Dre), or, to paraphrase the president, jackassery (Kanye West, who stepped out from the control room a long time ago anyway). Even if you’ve been living in a quarry for the past half-century, you’ve probably got some vague sense of Martin’s achievements: his pioneering use of multitrack recording techniques; his infusion of classical and other unidiomatic elements into the pop lexicon. And even the casual fan will grok snatches of his actual performance on Beatles tunes, from his baroque, elegiac piano-as-harpsichord solo on “In My Life” to the literal hand he played in what are arguably the two most recognizable single chords of all time — the closing E major on “A Day in the Life” and, well, whatever the hell it is that preludes “A Hard Day’s Night.” There is, in short, a general awareness that “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” wouldn’t exist without George Martin; that, in his absence, it’d be far less accepted or fashionable to consider rock songs in the same high-minded academic mode as the symphonic, orchestral, or jazz music with which he inflected them; and that one can trace a direct line between how recording is done today and how Martin laid that groundwork fifty years ago.

And yet — the job of the producer being what it is — the finer gradations of Martin’s labor now stand in peril of being lost amid these broader brushstrokes; this seems an especial danger today, on the heels of his passing, with the obituarist’s inevitable big-picture-isms now set to spill forth from all corners. And no doubt the Beatles’ own unshakable renown will continue to play its part — these are geniuses, after all, visionaries and prodigies the lot, whose innate talent, the feeling goes, would’ve borne out regardless of circumstance (not a bad trick, it should be noted, for an act Martin initially found at best unprepossessing). Here, then, are George Martin’s greatest generally un- or under-heralded contributions to the Beatles canon, however wonky or technical or ostensibly inconsequential. It is the copy editor’s undertaking, after all, to lose the forest for the trees.

Knowing When to Rock

For a guy crossing over from the world of classical — not to mention the even farther-afield realm of comedy and novelty recordings — Martin sure seemed to possess an uncanny knack for intuiting when a Beatles number needed more vim and vigor. One such cut: “Please Please Me,” now unimaginable without the rapid-fire patter spurred by its uptempo arrangement (I do all the pleasin’ with you/It’s so hard to reason/With you), which started life, per Martin, as “a Roy Orbison type of song…very slow…rather dreary, to be honest…. It was obvious to me that it badly needed pepping up.” Recalled Paul McCartney, “We sang it and George Martin said, ‘Can we change the tempo?’ We said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Make it a bit faster. Let me try it.’ And he did. We thought, ‘Oh, that’s all right, yes.’ Actually, we were a bit embarrassed that he had found a better tempo than we had.” After the session, as Martin would later recount, “I was able to say to them, ‘You’ve got your first No. 1.’ ” He was right about that, too (if you go by the NME and Melody Maker charts, anyway).

As musicologist Alan Pollack puts it, in his indispensable “Notes On…” series, “Compared with the extant tapes of the Quarrymen, the Star Club, the Decca audition, or even the couple of preceding EMI sessions, ‘Please Please Me’ gives us an energized performance and an arrangement more complicated than anything these Boys had attempted heretofore. This would seem to suggest that the firm and creative influence of George Martin began to be felt even at this early date.”

Embracing the Counterintuitive

A funny thing happens at roughly the two-minute mark in “I Should Have Known Better,” the second song from the Hard Day’s Night LP: John Lennon’s voice, thus far double-tracked throughout, splits off along a single vector. That this should occur so deep into the tune (“I Should Have Known Better” clocks in at only 2:43 in total length) is doubly curious given that here we have a repetition of an earlier bridge section — which itself had maintained the double-tracking the first time around.

But if you’re thinking that the move would have the effect of reducing tension, you’d be wrong, according to Pollack: “This section is perhaps the high point of the song,” he writes, “because of the single tracking; it has the power to stop you in your tracks. Based on rough outtakes of other Lennon songs from this period…I’m tempted to argue that John was more usually double-tracked not because he didn’t sound secure enough without it, but, quite the opposite, because in single-track mode, he almost sounds too intense.” (Pollack also notes the audible return to double-tracking, just for a moment, when Lennon reaches the falsetto’d hi-hi-HI, as a way of bolstering what might’ve been a comparatively attenuated head-voice. This, he claims, is “an example of the sort of attention paid to fine detail” by Martin and co.)

Eschewing Dull Repetition

Pollack sees evidence of this one so often in Martin’s work with the Beatles that he’s devised a name for it (cribbing from Emerson, of course): Foolish Consistency Avoidance. Be it a third-verse addition of handclaps or a change-up from off-beat to on-every-eighth shaking of the tambourine for a song’s coda, the m.o. here was a subtle but profound one — to add to or alter a track’s layering as it proceeds, thus negating, sometimes on a subliminal level, the prospect of the listener experience growing stale or predictable. Among the more easily perceptible examples, consider the revised vocal harmonies in the final verse of “The Word”; “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which does likewise and also has Lennon stretching to hit a new and pretty far out-there note in the same passage (the final syllable in the phrase But you can’t hear ME); and the many, many Beatles songs that end on an unexpected or unresolved chord, sometimes one that hasn’t appeared in the song at all until that point (“No Reply”), sometimes one that’ll make for a nifty transition into the next track on the album (“And Your Bird…”). Also consider, as Pollack urges, “the value added in the final verse of a song like ‘We Can Work It Out,’ where, in the same place where there always was a syncopated kick in the rhythm, they execute the phrase in rather perversely equal eighth notes.” The cheek of it!

Having It Both Ways

As with “Yesterday” and its stitched-in string quartet or “Please Please Me” and its frothy tempo, it’s hard to imagine “Strawberry Fields Forever” without its staggering bricolage of horns, cellos, Ringo Starr’s bonkers drumming, and George Harrison’s lysergic swarmandal. But that would be to ignore various embryonic and comparatively stripped-down versions of the song — tinkerings or takes that involved everything from melodica to spare acoustic guitar — and, indeed, to forget the finished product’s first full minute, comprising little other than McCartney’s mellotron and the rest of the band on the instruments they stuck to normally. And while the credit assigned Martin for the track typically cites his role in scoring the orchestral side of the equation, he and engineer Geoff Emerick had to pull off an even more difficult feat in splicing the two versions — the fluttery full-band take and the heavier drum’n’strings rendition — after Lennon found himself unable to decide which he liked better and insisted on a marriage of the two, despite the fact that they’d been recorded in different keys and at different tempos. As Emerick would recall, “My jaw dropped. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see George Martin blinking slowly. I could almost detect his blood pressure rising.”

What followed was part crack editing, part happy accident. Martin and Emerick, equipped only with tape machines, scissors, and a variable-speed pitch control, found that by speeding up the quieter full-band take and slowing the busier orchestral version, they could unify the piece under an approximate key (Pollack calls it “B-flat (more or less)”); they also discovered that doing so allowed Lennon’s vocals to take on, as Emerick puts it, “a smoky, thick quality that complemented the psychedelic lyric and swirling instrumentation.” The result is also that rarest of birds: an example of trying to please everyone and actually doing exactly that. Just don’t try to play along with it — unless you’re prepared to do some serious retuning of your own.



42 Questions, or Why Are You Bingeing on Ed Sheeran?

Who the fuck is Ed Sheeran, and how the hell did he get this popular?

Why do you know him on sight? How is that even possible, when you’d read nothing about the guy, nor even thought consciously about him, that you can recall, until now?

Are you alone in thinking he looks like what Pixar would come up with, if Pixar were asked to imagine a rock star?

It must be the music, right?

Is this actually his discography — two long-players and like forty EPs? Why are the proper albums given single-letter, possibly pictographic, possibly mathematical designations (x, +), while the EPs bear such comparatively long titles as Songs I Wrote With Amy? (And is something the matter with you if you find that one particularly insufferable, just on its face?)

Should any of this matter? Now that you’re giving the albums a whirl, aren’t you finding that none of it is what you’d call unpleasant in any way? Isn’t it all melodic enough, even if a little, er, anodyne? And hey, this one, “The A Team,” haven’t you heard this one before? Whoa, and this “Thinking Out Loud,” too, right? Is it possible you’ve been surrounded by this stuff for, like, several years, now, without ever quite realizing it? Why, suddenly, are you seized by the compulsion to shop for bread or hit the button on the elevator or hustle across the empty lobby of the cineplex?

[pullquote]Are you alone in thinking he looks like what Pixar would come up with, if Pixar were asked to imagine a rock star?[/pullquote]

But what’s that? You’re finding it hard to sit through a whole album of this stuff? (Would this maybe explain all the EPs?) Is it all starting to remind you of a really proficient imitator covering something you must‘ve heard, and possibly ignored, before? Is it that the albums are kinda same-y, throughout? Is it that the odd left turn, like in “The City,” is actually worse, what with those “Creep”-lite affectations? Could, in sum, the recorded output alone really be responsible for (gulp) Sheeranmania?

After all, if this were another era, can’t you just imagine this sandwiched between Edwin McCain and Tonic on that station your dad always landed on while driving across town, having dialed past nu-metal and rap-rock and then declared, “What’s this? This is not unpleasant” and proceeded to hum off-key the rest of the way to the Domino’s?

Does the answer maybe have something to do with Sheeran being so ecumenically palatable as to have captured a swath of many disparate demos? For starters, can’t you see him appealing to young girls? Can’t you see how they’d love feeling exalted, the way Sheeran’s narrators exalt their beautiful, tragic lovers? And wouldn’t his lyrics likewise appeal to a certain breed of young male, the high school boy emoting vicariously, as he’s done since the days of Dashboard, as he’s done since time immemorial? How about moms shopping for bread? How about dads humming and not knowing it?

That can’t be it, though, can it? Didn’t ecumenical palatability once mean only that an (ahem) artist could be counted on reliably as a unit-shifter, as opposed to a full-on megastar? Has the balkanization of tastes simply lowered the tide? Is it maybe this plus the vaunted democratization of our epoch, that the spirit of the times — or whatever you want to call it — has realigned preferences so firmly in favor of the scruffy everyman?

Would this be the explanation behind — as others have pointed out — Sheeran having that “nice guy” image so carefully stewarded? Even at their most contentious, can’t you just imagine all of his interview-answers coming appended with a shrug and an I don’t know, I’m just your average guy? Are even those answers deliberately calculated to lend him just enough edge to lasso yet some additional demographic or subdemographic, the very same way his most dangerous lyrics only go so far as “chucking the controller at the TV”? Is this sufficient for injecting some bad-boy cred into that bleeding heart on his sleeve? He talks in the same song of “getting drunk a lot,” but don’t you just envision a besotted Sheeran sobbing some and then penning another tender ballad, possibly with aid of candlelight? We’re not being encouraged to imagine him in any kind of “Too Drunk to Fuck”–type scenarios, are we?

Or maybe the better question is: In a vacuum, does this guy have anything to recommend him beyond vocal ability — technical, polished soundness, blandly pretty and asking very little in return, impelling the soul on to no place any farther than the empty cineplex lobby?

This has been an utter and shameless ripoff of Touré’s far superior “32 Questions,” written for the Voice in 1999, of which the author is a great admirer and to which he intended the present in part as loving homage.


Wig Out! Super Furry Animals Groove Deep at 4Knots

If you’re a sucker for this sort of stuff, it’d be hard to imagine a more perfect setting for a Super Furry Animals show than that of this year’s 4Knots. This was in Hudson River Park, at the end of Pier 84 at the magic hour — one of those silvery July twilights, the sun shrinking away off the edge of the world before yielding, finally, to the liquid lysergic video backdrops the band brought along for this headlining set: swirls of stroboscopic technicolor, twitchy newsreel cut-ups, a Floydian mise en abyme of digital pyramids expanding ever outward. Factor in the hypnotic autoplayed intro to “Slow Life” — the entrance music to which the Furries strode out, clad in identical white hooded hazmat-type coveralls, and took up their instruments, sliding in seamlessly with the track — and man, it was all the kind of gestalt known to make a certain breed of frazzled cat scream “Freak out!” and run for cover (and certainly, most assuredly, to leave besotted music journalists overworking their prose in a doomed effort to convey it all).

The crowd, before that, had been listless in a way that was almost palpable. It had been a long day. Many festivalgoers lay spent in the grassy sward off beyond the viewing area proper. Only maybe about nine or ten rows staked their claim in front of the stage. Aboard the Hornblower Infinity, docked stage-left along the pier, idlers soaked up the final few hours of V.I.P. treatment, trading in drink tickets and moseying about and stretching out along the railings. Whether those remaining for the day’s final act were there out of pure abiding fandom or just inertia was an open question.

But then maybe the abeyant mood represented the gathering of some ineffable force; maybe everyone was just conserving energy. Or maybe the Super Furries won themselves a fair few converts. By the time the band got to the title track from Rings Around the World, the crowd had swelled and gelled and focused, with a guy just over this reporter’s right shoulder saying something about how this was not at all what he’d thought this group was about, and was (quote) dope.

Super Furry Animals get meta onstage at 4Knots 2015.
Super Furry Animals get meta onstage at 4Knots 2015.

Even if you did have some notion what to expect, though, based on recorded evidence — SFA’s impressive catalog, their variety of styles a grab-bag nonpareil — the band were here to pull the tablecloth out from under those preconceptions. Like the Flaming Lips, in many ways their closest American analogue, the Furries are infinitely more muscular live, more driving and propulsive and head-nod-worthy; here is where I should doff cap to Dafydd Ieuan, drummer par excellence, plus he sings (sometimes lead, always well). But even in terms of mode or style: You’d expect Britpop-y melodicism shot through with touches of outré psychedelia and techno flourishes, but this was more often, especially when it came to songs’ extended codas, a full-on heavy-groove orgy — one that centered on some heretofore uncharted sweet spot between jam and EDM, with drops to put Skrillex to shame (the whomping final movement of “Receptacle for the Respectable” comes to mind), plus one-chord pedals reminiscent, again, of the Floyd (“Echoes” in particular) and total loopy wig-outs courtesy of Cian Ciarán, multi-instrumentalist and (to use a term I know he dislikes, but that nonetheless seems about right) synth wizard.

There were, of course, quieter moments to break up all this walloping hugeness: the show-stopping “Run! Christian, Run!”; the pastoral gloom of “Pan Ddaw’r Wawr”; the haltingly pretty “Mountain People”; a “Hometown Unicorn” that, slowed down just a skosh, sounded even more like the Beach Boys. All of which only goes to point up how well-programmed the performance felt: Here we had less a loose collection of songs spanning SFA’s two decades of output (though that was, in fact, also true) and more a cohesive whole, a show, right down to the costume changes (frontman Gruff Rhys donning his trademark Sun Ra–spaceman helmet; later, everyone but Ciarán leaving the stage so as to be outfitted in those Yeti-longhair getups) and employment of droll cue cards (“APPLAUSE,” “PROLONGED APPLAUSE,” “APESHIT”). Still, the proceedings hadn’t been so rigidly plotted as to preclude offhand asides, like when the band saluted a passing party cruiser, with Ciarán blatting a simulation of its horn on his keyboard and Rhys instructing the crowd to wave to the folks on board.

So maybe this wasn’t the edge of the known world after all; maybe there were people out there, elsewhere, doing other things as this Saturday darkened into night. But one thing I can say for sure is that those people drifted right by something very special.



Vowelless Album in Tow, Welsh Psych-Rockers Super Furry Animals Descend on New York

The year 2015 marks, among other things, the twentieth anniversary of the Super Furry Animals’ first proper release and debut as a live act. It also represents, at maybe just a bit of a stretch, twenty-five years since their very earliest embryonic stirrings, in Wales, as a band.

But none of those is the milestone they’ve chosen to commemorate this year. Instead the Super Furries — in characteristic fashion, which is to say lovably askew — have elected to return to the road in honor of Mwng, the stripped-down 2000 outlier on which they sang exclusively in Welsh. (The title is pronounced somewhere between “moong” and “mung.”) The album, long out of print, has just been reissued by Domino. The handful of dates behind it, including the Voice‘s own 4Knots (July 11), are their first outings as a unit since 2009.

So: Why not go with the silver jubilee, as opposed to a mile marker for which there is no handy nomenclature?

“The stars were just in alignment,” insists Cian Ciarán (“KEY-an Kieran”), multi-instrumentalist and something of the group factotum. “We didn’t plan any of it.

“We didn’t plan last year to come back and do a reissue. We spoke to Domino maybe two or three years ago about reissuing, and a guy called Ric Rawlins wrote the biography [Rise of the Super Furry Animals], which came out in February, and then we got offered some shows and it was like those three things all came together around the same time. It wasn’t like we put a marker down and decided, ‘We’re gonna do it.’ It kinda made sense. It wasn’t contrived. There was no big marketing ploy behind it. It happened to be the fifteen-year — well, every year is an anniversary of some sort, so.”

Indeed, contrived seems to be a dirty word in the Super Furry lexicon, emerging as it does more than once in conversation with Ciarán to denote the antithesis, basically, of the group’s ethos. Even in matters as trivially prescriptive as band roles — here Ciarán will cop to certain members having certain especial métiers, certain primary functions onstage, but apart from that paints a portrait of Super Furry World as rather a democratic and label-less place. Pressed on the accuracy of early-career depictions of him as the group’s secret-weapon electronics guru/sonic architect — or as he puts it, “a synth wizard or some shit” — Ciarán bristles.

“I’m not very comfortable with that,” he says. The five members, he explains, are all equally hands-on in the studio. “Everyone shares. Everyone plays a bit of keyboards. Everyone dabbles….Maybe I had a bit more grasp of computers and sequencers and synths and that. [But] that’s what’s good about being in a band, you know — if you gave each member the same song and locked them away in the studio on their own, you’d get five different versions of that same song.”

Those five members, incidentally, are: Gruff Rhys (lead vocals/guitar, he of the dark fluffy hair and beady eyes), Huw Bunford (guitar/vocals; scraggy, vaguely Scandinavian), Guto Pryce (bass; the most workaday-looking), Dafydd Ieuan (percussion/vocals; hale and hearty), and Ciarán (Dafydd’s seven-years-younger baby brother, by the way). They are, alternately, and per Super Furry parlance, each known by a cuddly mononym: Gruff (“Griff”), Bunf, Guto (“Gitto”), Daf (“Dav”), and Cian. Gruff plays left-handed, without restringing, such that the high E is topmost on the guitar. His is the signature baritone, the group’s calling-card. But Bunf and Daf sing like frontmen in their own right. None of the five can read music, but they’ll leap octaves like the Beach Boys, harmonize like same, change keys on a dime, cram about five separate songs’ worth of melodies into three or four minutes, and generally mash up all manner of modes and styles until the end result is unrecognizable as any of the above, until it is wholly their own.

[pullquote]‘We played in Japan, and people in Japan were singing back to us in Welsh.’[/pullquote]

That last tendency — or rather, the repudiation of it — has often been cited as the impetus behind the comparatively barebones Mwng. Story goes that the previous album, 1999’s Guerrilla — by Cian’s own telling, “a lavish experience…weeks and weeks in the studio” — failed to meet pop-chart expectations, possibly on account of a certain kitchen-sink overstuffedness, in response to which the band declared a “pop strike.” They then set about writing and rehearsing the all-Welsh array that was to become Mwng, for which Cian avers the recording and mixing process took a grand total of nine to ten days. It was, he says, “an opportunity, almost by default, to take a step back and sort of familiarize yourself again with what you used to do before you had money to go to the studio….We didn’t have time to work into the production and all, and I don’t think the songs needed it so much, either.”

So was Mwng an overt political gesture, an effort to preserve and promulgate Welsh language and culture? A Metal Machine Music–type raging-against-the-music-biz-apparatus? A disavowal of the work that’d come before — the brashness of debut LP Fuzzy Logic, the manic busyness of Guerrilla — signaling a newfound seriousness of purpose?

Only, says Cian, with “the luxury of hindsight.” As is the SFA way, Mwng was an organic outgrowth, an intuitive next step. “For us it was just going back to what we were doing ten years before,” he says. “Everyone had been in bands previously and had recorded exclusively in Welsh. So it was a natural thing for us. Gruff, I think, hadn’t sung in English till he was twenty-six….It might be obvious to others where certain times [are a] turning point, or whatever. Which at the time you don’t think about, or it’s not obvious.”

Even so, the album resonated in ways that Cian, today, clearly finds vindicating. “It opened doors. It allowed us an invite to come to the States to do a two-week tour for the first time. We played in Japan, and people in Japan were singing back to us in Welsh, just singing the phonetics. And people had seen it as a real language, not a dead or a dying language.”

So it seems fair to say, whatever the motivation, the album was the needed shot in the arm, the vital bridge to the charming raft of LPs to follow: 2001’s pretty-much-undisputed-masterpiece Rings Around the World, 2005’s beloved concept work Love Kraft, 2007’s song-for-song-great Hey Venus! And maybe, just maybe, it’s at least partially responsible for the Furries’ all-but-unrivaled longevity. As Cian notes, “It’s the same five members in the band, still the same five onstage, still the same five in the studio, and nine albums by the same-five lineup. Which is, I don’t know, I’m sure there’s — it’s not unique, but I’m sure there’s not many.”

As for going forward, is this reunion a harbinger of things to come — possibly heralding a new album, maybe? Cian’s coy on this point, except to say that it might all hinge on the fortunes of the Welsh national soccer team. “We’ve got a really good chance of qualifying for the Euros next year in France,” he says. “And you know, that could see the return of the Furries going back to the studio. Every country has a sort of theme song when they go to these tournaments…Yeah, that might make us go back to the studio.”

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The Village Voice’s 4Knots Music Festival
The fifth annual 4Knots Music Festival takes place July 11 on Hudson River Park’s Pier 84 from noon to 10 p.m., rain or shine. General Admission tickets are on sale for $25; V.I.P. tickets are available for $50. For additional information, visit