james debate
james debate

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Genre Trip-hop
Label Parlophone
Producers Gorillaz, The Twilite Tone, Remi Kabaka Jr, Fraser T Smith

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Gorillaz, once the party-album mainstay of radio charts the world over, have gone a full seven years since releasing their last real album, Plastic Beach (unless you count The Fall, which we don't). After much speculation, the lengthy hiatus has come to an end, and the result is Humanz.

The last time we saw them, this brainchild of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett were at something of a crossroad. Plastic Beach, arguably the best Gorillaz album, marked a shift away from their more crowd-pleasing, radio-friendly roots towards something with a bit more political and intellectual direction behind it. This shift was reflected in the notably greater variety and experimentation in the music, something which was applauded by critics, but alienated some longterm fans. With Humanz now upon us, my first question was what direction they have taken in the time since.

The first thing you notice with this album? This is a long album, some 26 tracks. Back when I was a lad, 20-track albums were common, but in recent years the trend has very much been for quality over quantity, with 10 or so songs seeming to be a popular consensus. So the quantity of music that has been produced here is quite notable in itself.

So it is surprising, considering the great variety and experimentation of Plastic Beach, that their considerably longer follow up somehow ends up feeling more one-note and unadventurous. This is very much a move back in the hip-hop direction for Gorillaz. The problem is that the band was never really pure hip-hop, it was the mix of hip-hop sensibilities with catchy pop hooks and clever genre blending that made their early work so memorable, and there is a distinct lack of this trademark creativity in Humanz.

Now of course, there's nothing wrong with making a more traditional hip-hop album, but these are just bland songs. You could easily eliminate a good 10-15 of these tracks without anybody noticing, such is the derivative nature of so much of this work. Instead, the highlights come on the few occasions when Gorillaz does try to move into more unconventional, experimental genres.

Andromeda is the clear stand-out of the album, sounding a bit like a darker, more apathetic refrain of Melancholy Hill, with some really great funk vocals thrown in. It's the only track that really compares to some of their older material. We Got the Power is probably the next best, standing out for its energy and driving beat, but even that track ultimately ends up going nowhere in its short 2 minute running time.

That's not to say that these songs are bad. Strobelite is a nice retro throwback, while Busted and Blue is a sweet, if strangely out of place acoustic track. Hallelujah Money is the marmite equivalent of music, "interesting" to some, "weird ass" to others, and generally off-putting for its overt political nature. The best that can really be said about the music is that there are plenty of interesting moments, most of which end up going nowhere, and get bogged down by the relentless tedium of the rest of the album. One gets the impression that Albarn came up with a handful of decent hooks, couldn't think of how to finish them, and just threw in some generic hip-hop beat to fill in the gaps.

One also gets the impression that Albarn is trying a bit too hard to come up with an album concept for our times and political situation. These songs are the most overtly political Gorillaz have ever done, with references to the corruption of wealth, and "building walls". Allegedly the record label made them remove many explicit Trump references before release. Don't get me wrong, I sympathise with the message, but this is just so heavy handed. So apocalyptic and dreary. And that's probably why the music sounds so dreary and bland, it's part of the concept. This is ultimately an album of dystopia and pessimism, and the music seems so focused on pushing that aesthetic that it lacks any real heart or inspiration.

So this is perhaps an example of a musician putting the message before the music. The best artists find ways to marry the artform to the message in ways that complement one another, but Gorillaz have not managed to do that here. Most of these tracks are so indistinguishable and bland, and the fact that there are so many of them means the album just drags and drags. This album would be twice as good if you just cut it down to 10 songs long, but even then, the simple fact is that there is little here anyone will remember in a year's time.

Gorillaz's workmanlike new album Humanz sets dutifully about creating a party-album for the end of the world, but lacks the band's trademark sparkle or creativity. The result is a largely forgettable collection of musical musings that are never quite as profound as the intend to be, never quite as cohesive as they would like to be. I've been waiting patiently for new Gorillaz, but this feels like an album that did not need to be made.

Must Listen :
We Got the Power

Thursday 15 June 2017

Created by Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang
Network Netflix
Starring Aziz Ansari
Genre Comedy-drama
Running Time Varies

master of none season 2 two netflix aziz ansari amazing

It is not often that I feel moved to write about TV shows here. A beginning of year preview, an end of year round-up, but actual reviews? The Ephemeric probably only has about a handful of them. Part of the reason for this is that a TV show is an ongoing thing, and reviewing something that hasn't ended and is still subject to change is inherently riddled with problems. For this same reason, it's even more unusual for me to review a second season of a TV show; in fact I'm pretty sure I have never done so. Well today I am going to make an exception, because the second season of Master of None really needs to be discussed.

This is, of course, the second season of the Netflix Original, written by and starring Aziz Ansari. I have to preface any review of this show by saying that I have never been a particularly big fan of Ansari. Never found his stand-up all that funny, always found his characters one-note and annoying. The only thing I have ever really appreciated him in was Parks and Recreation, and even there he was mostly playing the standard Ansari character: a shrill and metrosexual parody of the 2010s male. Master of None has changed my view.

The show's first season was a perfectly solid season of TV. Ansari and his co-writer Alan Yang set out to work Ansari's observational wit into a narrative format, and the result was hard not to like. The episodes were a little inconsistent to be fair, and far too often felt like a forced and ill-fitting vehicle for the material. Nevertheless they managed to portray what life is like in the 2010s for young adults, probably better than any other show had done before. Each episode initiated a conversation on contemporary topics like social media, modern dating, and of course the show's recurring theme of foodie culture. It is a commentary on the modern phenomenon of optimisation culture, the fixation we have on going to the top restaurants on Yelp, the hottest vacation spots on TripAdvisor, the trendiest outfits on Pinterest, etc and then sharing our adventures with those around us. It was far from perfect, but very much a show of its time. As much as I enjoyed season 1, the second season easily surpasses its predecessor in just about every way, and so much so that honestly I am a little bit blown away.

The first thing that comes to mind upon watching the second season is that this writing team has become considerably more proficient at crafting a story. This was already in evidence towards the end of season 1, but this year they absolutely nail it right from the first moment. Gone are the days when episodes would seem to exist solely to provide a platform for the jokes, the episodes here are all entirely meaningful, relevant, and successfully complemented by Ansari's sense of humour.

What's more remarkable is just how adventurous they have become with the format of the show. The first episode is filmed entirely in black and white, in Italian with subtitles. Another episode barely even features Ansari, but instead is split between three independent settings with random people in the city of New York. Another episode takes a break from the main narrative to explore 10 years worth of Thanksgivings between Ansari's character and his best friend. Throughout the season, the writers show great audacity to play with the structure and tone of episodes in ways that would never be done on regular television. While a more traditional plotline certainly runs through the season, each episode ultimately feels like its own thing, and are all the more memorable for it. Simply put, this is the boldest television I've seen in a very long time; a continual series of moments and ideas that will stick with you long after the episode ends.

Ansari himself has even matured as an actor. A more toned down Ansari is more relatable and likeable, without losing any of his signature quirks and charisma. Surprisingly, they even manage to reinvent Ansari as a credible romantic lead, with a romantic subplot that in all honesty is one of the most engaging I can remember in a TV series. A great deal of credit for this needs to go to Ansari's co-star Alessandra Mastronardi, who is an absolutely captivating presence whenever she is on-screen, a beguiling star turn from an actress I suspect we will be seeing a lot more of from this point hence.

But an extremely underrated component of what makes this show so good is its high quality of production. There is some remarkable filmmaking on show in these episodes, gorgeous visuals and cinematography, and highly inventive direction. One episode features a series of moments from Ansari's adventures on Tinder, spliced together into a single evening. Another stunning moment features a four minute long-take of Ansari's Uber ride home following a particularly emotional revelation, to devastating effect. The soundtrack and general use of music is among the best I've ever seen in a TV show, while the casting has been brilliant, right down to the smallest role (my girlfriend informs me that the Italian actors used are fairly prominent stars in Europe - an indication of just how meticulous they have been). Even the somewhat awkward presence of Ansari's real parents instead of actual actors can't put a blemish on the show; so finely balanced is the tone of the writing that these moments come across as charming rather than cringe-worthy.

This is prestige television at its finest. Master of None is a dramatic improvement on its first season, establishing itself as probably the best comedy on TV in many years, and arguably the best show of any genre on TV at the moment. Ansari is establishing himself as one of the finest writers in the industry today, and a man of impeccable sensibilities. This is a crowning achievement, and a star-making turn for those involved.

Monday 12 June 2017

Almost exactly one year ago after the Brexit vote, The Ephemeric wrote that David Cameron's self-destruction was a folly of historic proportions, a humiliating own-goal that would ensure Cameron went down as one of the great punchlines of British politics. Well it hasn't quite taken Theresa May a year to outdo her predecessor. David Cameron can breathe a sigh of relief, because this latest blunder will take some beating.

theresa may defeat disaster joke humiliation own-goal brexit jeremy corbyn uk general election 2017

What just happened?
When Theresa May called a snap general election two months ago, it was a little bit of a flip-flop on her part seeing as she had said unequivocally on numerous occasions that she would not call an election, reasonably making the case that now was not the time for political games. Still, with the Conservative party some 25 points ahead in the polls at the time, May evidently had decided that she could live with being branded a political opportunist, so long as it helped cement her authority in Westminster.

Indeed such a polling margin was practically unprecedented in British politics. People were expecting the Tories to expand their somewhat meagre 5 seat majority by as many as 100 seats, taking their MP total in excess of 400. There was no question of whether the Tories would win the election, but whether they would expand their majority by a lot, or a little. So when that exit poll dropped on Thursday, showing that the Tories would not in fact expand their majority at all, but lose seats, and lose their majority, it sent a nuclear shockwave through British politics.

This was an election that did not need to be called at all. No one wanted another election. The Tories already had an outright majority, their first in 20 years no less. Theresa May threw all that away in just a few months as leader of the party. It's an astonishing tale of hubris and comeuppance, and one which will certainly see Theresa May go down as one of the shortest serving, and most ridiculed, Prime Ministers in UK history.

So how did this happen? How did the Tories throw away such a commanding lead in such a short time? And what lessons can they take away from this crushing defeat?

Were the polls wrong?
First let's talk about that unassailable polling lead. Even though the polls showed a 25 point lead, it was never actually as solid as that sounds. To begin with, you have to assume that just a few months into the job, Theresa May was still experiencing a bit of a honeymoon period in the opinion polls, a very widely studied effect. Then there was the unusually high number of undecided voters on the polls, almost 1 in 3 on some polls. That is astoundingly high. A lead of 20% means much less when at least 30% haven't even decided who to vote for yet, you can't possibly make an accurate prediction from that. Honestly, that no one in the Conservative party picked up on such basic polling issues suggests either an incredible lack of expertise, or an incredible lack of communication between staff.

But the biggest single reason for the polling upset is this: the pollsters themselves didn't trust their numbers. Polls were showing a close race between the Tories and Labour for weeks, but pollsters didn't believe that young people would actually show up to the extent they were finding, so they fudged the numbers.

They were wrong, young people showed up, and in record numbers. Londoners showed up in record numbers. Angry Remain voters showed up in record numbers, and they got their revenge on the Conservative party that has spent the past year ridiculing and ignoring their opinions.

Was this a Brexit election?
As a Remain voter, it would be opportunistic and easy for me to come out at this moment and say that this was a second referendum on Brexit, so instead I'll let Theresa May herself say it. The leader of the Conservative party called this a "Brexit election", said that Brexit was "on the ballot". So you know what, I'll take her at her word on that, and boy have the voters spoken clearly. They reject Theresa May's vision of extreme Brexit.

The numbers show this quite clearly. Conservative vote share collapsing in Remain-voting areas, losing 10% share in super conservative Chelsea, and losing Kensington (!) to Labour. To my American friends, the Tories losing Kensington is like Trump losing Alabama. Theresa May's party has been routed in former Conservative strongholds that voted Remain. Add to this the decimation of the UKIP voter share, and the gain of seats by pro-EU parties like the Liberal Democrats, and it really is undeniable; this was indeed a Brexit election, and the voters have told May in no uncertain terms they don't like what they're seeing.

This is not just the view of the left-wing. Former Tory MP George Osborne says this election threw hard Brexit "in the rubbish bin". Several prominent party members have now come out as recognising hard Brexit as leading the Conservative party to "political ruin". The Tories had inexplicably forgotten just how barely the Brexit vote was won (and not even the hard Brexit they've been pursuing mind you, but a generic insert-your-own-fantasy-Brexit) and ignored any voice of dissent. That has cost them dearly now.

Other factors?
But in fairness, Brexit alone was not the only reason for defeat. There was the disastrous Tory manifesto, including such crowd pleasers as dementia tax and taking away free school lunches from children. There was the way that Theresa May refused to attend political debates, and seemingly hid herself away from the public in the final weeks of the campaign. It's that hubris again, thinking you can just avoid the voters and have their support, thinking you can propose horribly abusive policies and expect the average voter to either be unaware or ignorant of what you're doing, and it's just weak leadership to avoid responsibility as May has repeatedly done. This was a disastrously run campaign from start to finish.

And then there was the Trump effect. Theresa May has had a Donald Trump problem for a long time, but the final straw came in the wake of the recent terrorist attack on London when Donald Trump launched his appalling attack on the city and its Mayor. Theresa May said nothing. She would not stand up for her own people when attacked, even in the wake of this horrific act of violence. This is an utter disgrace, and even now she continues to push for a State visit for the President.

The sad fact is that Theresa May's blind Brexit obsession makes her pretty much dependent on Trump as a trade partner, so she'll tolerate whatever he does, no matter how distasteful, no matter how much it betrays her own people. It's an embarrassing and subservient relationship, one which begs the question: if your economic policy is dependent on you abandoning your ideals and principles, and sucking up to a hostile authoritarian, maybe it's not a policy worth pursuing.

All of this together paints a clear picture. An unpopular Prime Minister so blindly and foolhardily set on her destructive Brexit that she ignores her own people, that she refuses to debate or show even a modicum of respect to the Democratic process, that she refuses to stand up for her country or its ideals, that she betrays the dignity of her own people for the sake of bottom-feeding off a hostile foreign leader.

So what lessons can the Tories take from this?

  • For the love of God, stop calling elections that you don't need, it clearly never ends well;
  • Don't force on us a Brexit with probably not even 52% support as if it had 90% support;
  • If you want the job, show up for the damn interview;
  • We aren't fucking idiots, you won't win our support with lame catchphrases and evasive answers.
Sadly I'm not convinced that Theresa May has learned anything from this disaster. In public at least she has continued down the path of denial, insisting that all is well, and that the entire country is united behind her "strong and stable" patchwork of a Government, and excited about the opportunities of Brexit, despite how we actually voted. Her controversial deal with the devil, an alliance with the extremist, racist, homophobic, possibly terrorist DUP in order to cling on to power, will surely not win her any new converts. So mark my words, her party is rightly furious, and the moderates and Scottish conservatives are horrified by association with the DUP. Theresa May's days in power are numbered.

In the meantime, the people of Britain have turned out in record numbers and exercised their democratic right with clear voice. They have reminded all politicians that we are not ignorant fools, that we can not be taken for granted, and that we demand responsible, considered actions from our leaders. It's time for the Prime Minister to start listening.

Monday 5 June 2017

We are now one week away from the election that nobody asked for, but that has somehow been thrust upon us. The British public can be forgiven if voter fatigue is beginning to set in, but don't give up now, this election still matters. The difference between the various parties could not be more pronounced, and those are differences that will effect every person in this country on a very direct level. This year, The Ephemeric is unreservedly endorsing the Liberal Democrats, and here's why.

liberal democrats ephemeric endorsement tim farron corbyn theresa may uk general election 2017

Two years ago Britain was in prime position, a powerhouse bridging the gap between the world's largest economic centres of America, Asia and Europe. The nation was as prosperous as it had been in years, with living conditions on the mend after years of financial squeeze, and British soft power was arguably greater than that of any other nation.

Today Britain is in a far more precarious position, having voted to leave its largest trading partner, necessitating an uneasy economic dependence on formerly hostile Governments like Russia and Turkey, not to mention a more insular America. Currency valuation has plummeted, growth has slowed, wage growth has stagnated. An increasingly divided Britain has presented the very real concern over the future of our union, and public services have suffered as a result.

And what are the various political parties proposing to fix this mess? Theresa May's Conservative Party appears to be living in a fantasy-land where the country is coming together and enjoying the prosperous afterglow of Brexit. Her campaign promises have been an astonishing mix of dementia tax, taking away free school lunches from our children, and other awful ideas, all of which does little to distract from her wilfully blind obsession that we keep driving over the Brexit cliff, regardless of the consequences.

Corbyn's Labour has not been much better on Brexit, but to their credit they are at least recognising the need for public debate and consideration of the hard facts of any final deal. So if Theresa May's Brexit policy is akin to riding a dirt bike blindfolded while holding a chainsaw, at least Corbyn is removing the blindfold. However a vote for Corbyn also means tolerating the largest tax burden since World War II, and for some inexplicable reason a re-nationalisation of several industries, for no apparent reason. Let's not sugarcoat it, both of these main parties' policy proposals are pretty insane. From an economic perspective, the Conservative Party is marginally less insane, but they make up for it with their manic cult of Brexit, arguably more damaging than anything Corbyn is suggesting.

Then there are the party leaders themselves. Corbyn has made controversial statements in the past that could be seen as sympathising with the IRA, and has been dogged by disturbing links to anti-semitism. Meanwhile Theresa May's illiberal tendencies are leading us straight into one of the worst inequality crises of a generation. Her ignorant crackdown on digital freedom amounts to a Government takeover of the internet. Her gleeful embrace of the UKIP xenophobes, her cloying sucking up to the authoritarian dictators of the world (presumably to help support her Brexit addiction) places us on the wrong side of history. Her constant silence whenever Donald Trump attacks our country and its values is nothing short of a national disgrace. There is being diplomatic, and then there is being weak, a good leader knows where to draw the line.

Quite frankly, serious questions have to be asked of Theresa May's competence. The Tories began this campaign with a 25% lead, which has since dwindled to 5%. Much of this has to be attributed to what can only be described as one of the worst campaigns in political history, which has included a dependence on lame catchphrases (#strong&stable, #winningeverywhere, "red white and blue Brexit", ad nauseum). Two years ago everyone mocked Ed Miliband for repeating the same slogan over and over during an interview. That's basically been the entirety of May's campaign. This all culminated in a final week where Theresa May has apparently been in hiding, refusing to join politicians' debates, and cancelling interviews and public appearances. If she can't handle a fluffy morning talk show, how is she going to handle Putin and Brexit negotiations?

But having said all of that, the rationale of this endorsement is simple. For all their ideological differences, there is one big thing the two main parties have in common: they are both promising to close England off from the rest of the world, reversing the ideals of free market liberalism and globalism that have allowed Britain to prosper. That should utterly disqualify them in the eyes of any economically literate individual, and means I simply can not in good conscience endorse either one.

Ultimately there is only one national party looking even remotely like grownups during this election, the Liberal Democrats. They're the only party insisting on a fair Brexit deal, or even no Brexit if a reasonable result can not be attained. Since when is "looking before you leap" a controversial position? They're the only party offering the British public a say on the final Brexit deal that will determine the course of our country. The last referendum on a generic Brexit only just squeaked by, so by what bizarre stretch of logic are we to think that anything near a majority supports Theresa May's extreme and hard Brexit? Theresa May is abusing a slim majority support for a generic concept as a rubber stamp for whatever specific and extreme proposal she wants, and there is nothing at all democratic about that.

The Liberal Democrats are the only party proposing moderate spending cuts, as well as moderate revenue increases (a 1p tax rise), and the only ones who recognise the need to empower the middle class, without stifling the creativity of free enterprise. In a political climate where it has become unpopular to embrace time-tested evidence-based policy, the Liberal Democrats are the only party standing up for common sense economics and social progressivism. In a world where polarisation to the radical extremes of ideology has become mainstream, the Liberal Democrats are champions of a new breed of "radical centrism", the idea that evidence and reason should dictate policy rather than partisan politics, and that compromise with those who disagree with you is a sign of strength, not weakness.

No one will pretend that any party is perfect, but hard times like these call for calm, rational leadership. It calls for leadership that does what works, rather than what will help win the next election. Most importantly, we need leaders who will uphold the ideals of our free nation in the face of external and internal threat. Right now the Liberal Democrats are the only party stepping up to the plate. They may not win the election, but we fully encourage everyone to make a point and vote for the sensible and well thought-out policy that we deserve.

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