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Lisa Kudrow shines in “The Comeback”

Upon seeing the DVD, I was blown away by The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow’s short-lived series for HBO. In short, it’s hilarious but more than that, it’s clever. Kudrow plays Valerie Cherish, a faded comedic actress from the late ’80s and early ’90s who has slipped from the limelight and is now trying to claw her way back to fame and popularity.

The show we see comprises ‘raw footage’ taken from the fictional reality show The Comeback, which follows Valerie around on her day-to-day life as she takes a role on a new sitcom, Room and Bored. So really, it’s a show-within-a-show-(within-a-show) format; sounds quite complicated, but it makes sense when you see it. Since it is ‘raw footage,’ it is never as simple as a glossy look at the end product of a reality TV show – there are plenty of camera and “off-camera” asides, with Cherish regularly telling her producer Jane to not use parts of the footage in the final edit.

As such, it is a rather biting satire on reality TV – and an extraordinarily well-judged and perfectly-crafted one. Kudrow knows her stuff from having starred on Friends for a decade, and brings all that insider knowledge to the table in The Comeback. So, we see Valerie desperately trying to garner more lines for herself in the new sitcom Room and Bored, trying to win the popularity of the cast and crew, trying to win magazine covers and shine on the red carpet etc. But the writing and Kudrow’s performance is so strong and multi-layered that Valerie is never one-dimensional, the storylines are not predictable, and there is real heart to the show which is perhaps surprising in a satire like this.

The supporting cast is fantastic, and the entire show is pleasingly realistic and always thoroughly entertaining. It’s not a straightforward comedy by any means – certainly do not expect anything like Friends – but it would be a real shame if you missed something as clever and intricate and finely-detailed as The Comeback (not to mention a truly superb performance from Kudrow throughout.) It’s also a real shame that the show did not really take off on its original run in 2005, perhaps because the reality TV Kudrow was satirising was still so popular at that stage. Six years on, its reputation seems to be growing, rightfully so, and it’s the sort of show that rewards repeated viewing and stands up to that repeated viewing too (for all its cringiness too!)

I would heartily recommend The Comeback for both comedy and TV fans in general; it’s eye-opening on one hand, true, but thoroughly entertaining and engaging with it too. It goes without saying that it’s by far the best project taken on by any of the lead Friends actors since the show, but really it stands far apart from Friends in tone and style – and the fact that Kudrow pulled it off so marvellously is one of the many commendable things about it. Not to be missed.

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2010 just got hotter: Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz

This frankly marvellous treat for the ears has thrown my mental list of the Best Albums Of 2010 into disarray. I am fast falling in love with Sufjan Stevens’  The Age of Adz, an unorthodox but frequently sublime ride through brass bombast, electro glitches and squelches, bleeps and bloops, stately choral sequences, and alternately reverb-drenched and Auto Tuned vocal experiments.

On my first listen, I wasn’t sure whether this was terribly amazing or amazingly terrible, and on a couple of subsequent listens I felt it was an ambitious and impressive piece of work, but I did wonder whether the layers and layers of effects and intricate arrangements were a way of masking sub-par songwriting. I was wrong. The writing is strong and inventive, and amid the sometimes abrasive synth-heavy production there is a real core of beauty. It helps that Sufjan has a gorgeous voice and a way with melody. Before The Age of Adz, his detractors may have had him down as a bit of an indie folk softie. I think with this new album, his first “proper” release for five years, his talent and vision is on show now for all to hear.

It’s still very early days, and I’m still processing the album and its lyrics, but I’m feeling very enthusiastic about this record.

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Thea Gilmore – “Murphy’s Heart”

Over the course of a 12-year career, Thea Gilmore has quietly but fervently carved out a space for herself as possibly Britain’s pre-eminent acoustic singer-songwriter, an artist who gains critical plaudits and respect from her peers but little commercial success. Whether Murphy’s Heart – Gilmore’s tenth studio LP – will go any lengths to changing that is almost irrelevant because Gilmore has never been one to court commercial success, resisting major label offers in a bid to retain her artistic control and integrity, and instead has focused on building up a catalogue of quietly powerful music.

Age and experience have given Gilmore a depth and richness as an artist of late that was not always present on earlier, passionate, if somewhat less focused, records like Burning Dorothy and The Lipstick Conspiracies. It was around the time of 2001’s Rules for Jokers that Gilmore “found her voice,” eschewing some of her Americanisms for an album of literate acoustic music. The muddy, ramshackle Songs From The Gutter followed, before Gilmore perfected the sound on the excellent Avalanche.

After the covers stop-gap Loft Music, Gilmore returned after an uncharacteristically long three-year break with the pristine Harpo’s Ghost on Sanctuary but, deeming it too glossy, she returned to a more acoustic, stripped sound for Liejacker and the winter-themed Strange Communion. Murphy’s Heart arrives on the back of a spell of much creativity, her third new album in just over two years. Strange Communion replaced some of the blandness of Liejacker with a real beauty and elegance, and Murphy’s Heart develops the sound by adding some intriguing new musical ideas.

The thing to hit the listener immediately is the fantastically clear production. Everything sounds so clear and well-captured, every breath of Gilmore’s voice, every bang on some exotic percussion instrument. “This Town” is one of her best album openers, with its dirty bass line, inventive percussion, a light vocal from Gilmore, an imaginative, subtle change of rhythmic pulse in the chorus contributing to its sense of urgency and, most glorious of all, the presence of brass. Here it’s sassy, elsewhere it’s utilised differently, but the addition of brass and horns into Gilmore’s arrangements makes for quite spellbinding listening.

“God’s Got Nothing On You” boasts one of her purest melodies and vocal performances in the tradition of the great English folksingers, but with a faster, harder-edged arrangement, yet still a lightness of touch. “Due South” and “Automatic Blue” recall the slow-tempo beauty of Strange Communion, with the former incorporating some mournful violin work from long-time collaborator Fluff, and the latter, one of her simplest, loveliest romantic ballads, bringing harmonium into the mix.

The politicised Gilmore of yore returns on the impassioned “Love’s the Greatest Instrument of Rage,” a fast-paced folk stomper. It could be argued that the drums almost take away some of its powerful intensity, but it’s nevertheless a highlight. As is the quirky, unorthodox “Jazz Hands,” a playful carnival-esque tune that recalls, curiously, both KT Tunstall’s “Hold On” and Franks Wild Years -era Tom Waits. (Gilmore’s high voice is brilliant here, although it’s initially strange to hear her utter such a provocative line as “at least one part of you’s a killer dancer.”) The Waitsian influence resurfaces on the spooky, ghostly “Coffee and Roses,” which recalls some of Waits’ later romantic love ballads.

“You’re the Radio” is in the mould of “Juliet” and “That’ll Be Christmas” – a pleasant, catchy, radio-friendly lead single that does the job of promoting the record without sticking out like a sore thumb. In other words, it fits into the Murphy’s Heart ethos nicely but isn’t the sure-fire standout. It is followed by the up-tempo “Teach Me To Be Bad,” which you can imagine going down well in concert, and the urgent “Not Alone,” which features one of the record’s most elegant melodies. But one of the most elegant of all belongs to the beguiling “How The Love Gets In,” which is like a prettier and less miserable “Icarus Wind” (from Liejacker but originally released on 2007’s The Threads EP.) It’s wonderfully melancholy and romantic, and the cornerstone of the last quarter of the record. The slow “Mexico” is the definition of a ‘grower,’ while “Wondrous Thing,” making use of gorgeous horns and a slinky rhythm (plus some nice reverb effect on Gilmore’s vocals), is an appropriately sexy, subtle, romantic, vaguely jazz-inspired closer.

It’s early to make grand assumptions, but Gilmore and husband and collaborator Nigel Stonier, plus all the musicians who worked on the album, should be very proud of how Murphy’s Heart has turned out. It has all the elegance and grace that Gilmore has acquired of late but also some much-needed vigour has made a comeback, and the use of brass was a wise and successful decision. She is an incredibly intelligent and literate writer but sometimes it does feel as if her songs have attractive wordplay without saying very much. But, when you’ve a record as gorgeous as this, it’s a minor criticism. Still only 30, it’s exciting to think of what else Gilmore might have in store in the coming years. Murphy’s Heart feels like a new chapter may be starting.

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Nerina Pallot – “Skeleton Key” EP (2010)

Nerina Pallot seems to have learnt the Art of the EP. Since her February 2009 live jaunt, the Jersey-born singer-songwriter has crafted a trio of tour-only EPs that, as EPs are often wont to do, feature some of her finest (and rarest) material. But while Buckminster Fuller and Junebug were strong affairs in their own right, Skeleton Key achieves something different altogether.

After her third LP, 2009’s The Graduate, wore its pop influences unabashedly on its sleeve, Pallot has achieved recognition not just as a songwriter of intensely beautiful ballads but a real crafty pop tunesmith. So much so that Kylie Minogue has named her forthcoming new album Aphrodite after a Pallot/Andy Chatterley original and performed Pallot’s infectious “Better Than Today” on her last tour. But when Pallot does pop, it’s a classy Elton John kind of pop, or even reminiscent a more immediately palatable Steely Dan. Indeed, in her chord progressions and sometime-jazz leanings, the Dan influence is palpable.

Radio listeners and the public at large probably know her best from (the not entirely representative) “Everybody’s Gone To War,” but as the years go on and each new release appears, Pallot reveals herself to be a songwriter and performer of significant worth. Now recording at a home studio with husband Andy Chatterley, she has free rein to indulge her flights of fancy and, on the evidence of this new EP, that is something to rejoice. Recorded in March 2010 and released the following month at Pallot’s live UK gigs, the Skeleton Key EP is the most delightfully unexpected entry into the Nerina Pallot catalogue to date. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these 20 minutes are some of Pallot’s best on record yet.

Opener “Wolf and I” boasts perhaps Pallot’s most elaborate and imaginative arrangement on record to date; what is ostensibly a strange mid-tempo piano ballad is elevated into a studio piece of supreme sophistication with Pallot’s twisting background vocals, hypnotic drum beats, and various electronic squalls and effects. ‘Spooky’ is the word. The more conventional “And So It Should” begins on acoustic guitar but the arrangement grows to incorporate piano, vibes, haunting background vocals, handclaps, and electric guitar. A wonderful vocal performance wraps itself around chords that recall some of Joni Mitchell’s more sinister songs; it’s one of the more immediate songs on the EP and quietly powerful and intense.

The EP takes a turn for the more upbeat with “Break Up at the Disco.” Here, the pop smarts Pallot displayed so openly on The Graduate make a return, but with an added darkness and edge. This is unusual mutant singer-songwriter melodrama meets vintage disco pop; it’s like Elton John meets Donna Summer at an ABBA concert in 1979. But, as ever, Pallot’s lyrics are a cut above and the arrangement, which even incorporates saxophone, is pleasingly sophisticated and knowing. When Pallot goes all-out pop, she always manages to attain a certain intelligence and class and it’s just as much a part of her sound now as such emotional piano ballads as “Sophia” or “It Was Me.”

Meanwhile, “Is This A Low?” takes the title of the most un-Nerina Pallot song to date and for that we should commend her. Experimental and unusual, the title is perhaps a nod to Blur’s “This Is A Low,” and its moody, bass-heavy guitar-driven sound isn’t a million miles away from Blur. By some distance the dirtiest, moodiest, bluesiest song Pallot has committed to record, it’s also one of her sexiest and most sensual. Her gorgeous, feminine vocals lend the song an appropriately spooky, haunting quality, and towards its climax it recalls some of the trippier moments of Rickie Lee Jones’ Ghostyhead. Which is maybe not a coincidence, as it leads into a beautiful version of Jones’ “Skeletons,” a piano ballad of particularly delicate intensity. Pallot has credited the song with inspiring the whole EP; it’s a testament to Pallot’s own talents as a writer and vocalist that her own songs are the drawing point here.

Far and away the most interesting and unusual artistic statement of her career so far, the Skeleton Key EP is currently on sale on a tour-only basis but is expected to appear at Pallot’s online store soon. When it does appear, snap it up. Pallot’s two previous EPs, 2009’s Buckminster Fuller and Junebug, both feature their share of fine material, but Skeleton Key is a significant step forward. The most cohesive and thematically-linked work of her career to date, it features some exciting new experiments for Pallot and, especially coming after The Graduate, only highlights her sense of diversity and variety. If Pallot can craft something similar over the course of a full-length LP, her next record should be one to treasure.

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