Split Pediment

The musings of a Brighton-based architecture dweeb and town planner in training.

Category: Musicals

This year’s listening

I don’t frequently write here about music, although it’s very important to me. Prompted partially by a tweet from a pal (more on whom anon) I thought I’d give you a taste of my year’s listening. (As I don’t keep notes, this will be a partial and skewed list, bending towards what I can remember and what I’m generally listening to now).

Walk the moon

Still my current favourite band, I saw them twice this year in London and will probably do so again in February. They provide a distilled, electro-tinged version of guitar pop, the sort that so many bands attempt to do. What sets these guys apart is their seeming wide-eyed incredulity with the whole business, a genuine joie de vivre and some almightily wondrous songs. This is casual but heartfelt pop music that never fails to lift my mood.

Or this for schmaltz:

Luke Sital Singh

Luke I’ve seen twice, both times at The Hope in Brighton. Again, he’s not reinventing any wheels: he sings, he plays guitar, he looks slightly awkward. We’ve all seen this before. Again, though, it’s the quality of the songwriting that comes through. And live, the raw edge to his voice provides a depth to the tonal range that hasn’t yet been captured on record (his studio work, I think produced largely by the excellent Paul Steel, uses lush harmonies that are equally as compelling). There’s a spiritual dimension to his work, and at both gigs a quasi-reverential silence was present – rare for a Brighton crowd.

Owen Pallett

Earlier this year I went to the Barbican to see Owen Pallett’s violin concerto and Nico Muhly’s cello concerto. Both were excellent, adventurous works for these composers. But it’s Owen’s work writing pop music that I’ve got to know, both his Hearland album and his earlier works under the Final Fantasy moniker. Whilst I first started listening to these last year, they’ve remained firm favourites throughout 2012. Owen’s complex songs utilise an imaginative tonal spectrum, frequently dragging the mournful pastoral colours of the orchestra into the sweltering Arizona sun.

Stuart Warwick

Stuart hates two things most of all in life: being compared vocally to Thom Yorke and the fact that John Barrowman (surely an alien life form) continues to refuse to be mawled to death by a billion howling sea monkeys. Whilst not a close personal friend of mine, we did once stop to talk to each other on North Street whilst my left foot was bleeding into my shoe. His new album – The Butcher’s Voice – is excellent; eschewing the bombastic layering that most loop-based songwriters collapse into, his are genuine songs with an unrivalled poignancy. He’s also one of the few queer (as opposed to mainstream gay) artists living in Brighton, by which I mean that he is political and grossly ignored.

Ben Folds Five

The reformation of all three of the Five was something I consider a near-personal favour. Little did I realise, upon attending their gig in Birmingham earlier this year, that a thousand thirty five year old women and their boyfriends also know every word of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Still, that didn’t stop me from singing as loud as possible all the complex harmonic improvements that fifteen years of listening to these songs has gifted me. Their new album is (let’s be kind) a grower, with a couple of stand-out tracks. But just hearing them play live was a treat. It’s like what people who love metal say – you go for the mosh pit, but it’s the musicianship that blows you away. OK, there was no moshpit, but hot smokin dang these guys can PLAY.

The John Wilson Orchestra

The year has not been a particularly fruitful one for “classical” music for me. I singularly failed to see any of the proper proms – from whence I get my usual fix – but I did manage to make the campest of the Albert Hall’s offerings over the summer: John Wilson’s orchestra’s Broadway sounds prom. It did indeed sound fantastic (even allowing for the cavernous are-you-sure-the-orchestra-are-in-the-same-room acoustics), and the highlights included Seth MacFarlane’s exuberant glee, the ballet from On the Town [which I think really stands up to repeated listenings. Concert programmers could consider swapping the rather over-used Candide overture for arrangements of the On The Town ballet sequences] and this monster reprise performed by the wonderful Anna-Jane Casey:


Whilst we’re on the musicals theme, the best show I saw this year was the Rose Bruford school’s performance of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. This is a cheery little show concerning the apparently wrongful conviction of Leo Frank for the murder of Mary Phagan, using this sorry episode as a study of wider anti-semitism and notions of Southern identity in early 20th century America. Through song. The show is a tour de force. For those of you unfamiliar with Jason Robert Brown’s work, he is the pre-eminent composer of musical theatre (let’s admit that Sondheim’s finest hour is past. And that JRB might – *might* – actually be better). Mark Newnham – the aforementioned pal of mine – played the lead (brilliantly, but I would say that) and the whole cast, who were on stage throughout, forming the orchestra as well as singing and acting, were astounding. I’ve listened to the Donmar cast recording (Rose Bruford weren’t recorded, though they were better) on so many train journeys that I’m convinced there’s a clipped-voiced lady announcing the imminent arrival at Haywards Heath half way through the second act.

Retro Stefson

This year’s standout act from the Great Escape festival, Retro Stefson are a samba-tinged Icelandic septet of what appear to be the bounciest teenagers known to trampolines. Their tambourine player/lead dancer is one enthustiastic fellow, who instantly whipped the sullen Brighton crowd into a morass of embarrassed near-frenzy.

Joshua James, Admiral Fallow

Whilst these haven’t been at the top of my year’s listening, they have recently acquired a place on the “investigate further” list – Joshua James through giving away a download of his Build Me This 2009 album; Admiral Fallow through an excellent set at the Green Door Store recently (as well as the lead singer’s solo slot at the same venue as part of a previous Great Escape).

So, I hope that gives you a flavour of my year’s listening. I’m off to investigate Mark’s recommendation of the Syd Arthur Band. 

Do send me any musical recommendations you may have, and if you’ve been to any decent gigs with me that I was too inebriated to remember, send me a little reminder.


The song and dance, man

I’ve been meaning for a very long time to write a long piece about the musical. And when I say “long”, I really mean “book”. But I haven’t got around to that. And today’s an auspicious day. Two of the finest talents in the world of Musical Theatre share a birthday – that’s right. My cousin Henry shares his special day with Sondheim (yay!) and Lloyd Webber (boo!). So instead, I’ll content myself with some meandering wonderings on the disparate contributions of these two collossi.

Let’s start at the top with some mud-slinging. Lloyd Weber is man amongst the richest hundred or so in the UK. He – very occasionally –  sits in the House of Lords as a Conservative peer. He has a “foundation” that has – thank the Lord – saved three whole works of art for the nation. Except they’re selling one of them. He personally owns six of London’s least comfortable West End theatres, where he puts on his own shows and cashes in on other people’s. He has successfully infiltrated the BBC with his Saturday evening entertainments that provide him with the perfect platform for advertising whatever forthcoming show he’s developing.

Can the man write a tune? Oh, probably. Let’s not begrudge someone just because they’re wildly, inexplicably successful. It’s just that most of them are poor songs coupled to sappy lyrics and unoriginal storylines. Musicals that bash you around the head with their clunking fists of obviousness, their sheer determination to do precisely what’s been done before except with songs that just never go anywhere. Take the chorus from “Don’t Cry for me, Argentina”. You have to wait nine – count ’em – nine whole bars before you get anything resembling a proper chord change. No wonder the tunes rout their way into your brain – there ain’t nothing going on underneath!

So, a Conservative stage show impresario who writes dull tunes, is crap at philanthropy and doesn’t believe in competition. There’s a conflicted guy, surely? And yet he always looks so happy, that toad hall face grinning inanely at the camera…

Let’s turn our thoughts to a better place, to a better man. Sondheim is 80 today. No glossy titles, just a string of awards including a little something we like to call a Pulitzer. Here’s a man who clearly cares deeply about musical theatre. His first major success was writing the lyrics for West Side Story. He followed that nonsense up with another rum egg – Gypsy. And then he started writing the music too, and things really got going.

I know what you’re going to say – he can’t write a tune. Or at least not one you can hum. It’s all too clever by half. It’s depressing – you don’t see a musical to be told that marriage is really hard work! HE’S NEVER USED A DANCING CANDLESTICK!!

To which I say, “bunkum and bollocks”. He writes great tunes and complex ones. Company is a great. Yes, he there should be more anthropomorphic tableware in musical theatre but maybe not in a Sondheim show.

And he seems like an actual nice guy. He’s a patron of Mercury Musicals, one of the few rays of hope in the dire landscape that is the UK Musicals scene.

So, happy birthday to these two fellows. Musical theatre wouldn’t be the same without them – for better or worse.

UPDATE: Radio 3, from the BBC, has Mr. Sondheim as their composer of the week. Enjoy.