Album of 2016: Here – Alicia Keys

Album of 2016: Here – Alicia Keys

Choosing the album of the year wasn’t an easy task. Based purely on performance and production, the accolade would have gone to Radiohead for A Moon Shaped Pool. But music is about more than the aesthetic culmination of a sound. Alicia Key’s Here the proves this rule. It isn’t the product of years of evolution and refinement, it’s a new world that serves as an introduction to the real Alicia.

Before things slow down on the sixth track, “She Don’t Really Care_1 Luv”, there is a sense of stepping into Alicia’s authentic world, perhaps for the first time. The opening words demand attention (“I’m the dramatic static before the song begins / I’m the erratic energy that gets in your skin”) to “The Gospel”, a song that rolls along with an urban message and a street sound. It acts as a precursor to the entire album. The sweet piano, radio-friendly vibes are gone.

That’s not to say she has downplayed her natural talent on the keys, it’s now a tool used to give drama in the right places and emphasis like no other instrument can muster. Her vocal style has duly been adapted. In parts, like the album, it is raw. The openness, the imperfection, hearing the breath as she pushes messages into the microphone, or it break as she sings “Hallelujah”, surpass a polished mainstream offering.

With this record, she has finally given voice to her opinions, her character. “Blended Love” clearly comes from experience, talking about stepchildren and family. “Holy War” is a semi-political statement, reflecting these uncertain times. “Girl Can’t Be Herself” is the record that soundtracks her online push for women to go without make-up, be natural.

Cynics will point out it’s easy for one of the world’s most beautiful women to adopt the natural look, but they’d be missing the point and highlighting why Alicia has been championing the idea.

It should be noted there was nothing wrong with her previous offerings. The majority of Alicia Keys albums will stand the test of time. This one just redefines her while capturing the world now. “Kill Your Mama” isn’t a song that could have worked on a softer, commercial album.

Periodically the album cuts away to interludes, these add to the personalised structure. Without making this the whitest review ever of Here, it also makes one think back to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. That debut album perfectly got the idea of the artist and her sound over. It changed a genre in the process.

Here incorporates R&B, hip-hop, and soul traits into a wrapper of Alicia’s design. It’s an album that transcends her previous works and acts as a reboot for what’s to follow.

The clue was on the album cover. Quite regularly she is seen in a headwrap on social media, on the cover her natural curly locks spring to life unhindered. She’s Here. No longer the young piano playing virtuoso that’s falling or a girl on fire, but a woman with a strong voice and opinions to deliver.

The next time she provides them can’t come soon enough.

Don’t Brother Me

Don’t Brother Me

The release of Supersonic on Blu-ray allows fans of Oasis to once again marvel at the band’s high points and the tumultuous relationship between brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher. It’s hard not to crave a reunion when served such a nostalgia feast, accentuated by Liam’s own cries. But the film gives away enough in the way of clues as to why it won’t be anytime soon.

The insight provided is a unique peek behind the curtain of the greatest band of their generation, and potentially, the last truly organic super-band. It’s a privilege for the viewer to see Liam, Noel, Bonehead, Guigsy and Tony McCarroll filmed before the fame arrived, then follow them as they ride the wave.

What comes across is how, in essence, the zone they got into when playing sessions at the start of the documentary is the mental state they took on when inside the music at Knebworth. This isn’t a slight – quite the opposite – it’s a nod to the feel they had for the music. And the belief they had in themselves.

It wasn’t even driven by desperation. Noel is heard explaining how when he was a sound technician for the Inspiral Carpets, he thought: This’ll do for me.

Upon his return from that job (he was fired) he heard Liam play in the first version of Oasis. At first the band asked Noel to be their manager. He refused. Then he was offered a role as guitarist, aware he had song writing abilities. He duly accepted and the slow journey began.

By their own admission, they weren’t getting bad reviews, they weren’t getting spoken about at all. There’s flying under the radar before discovery, then there’s the sort of stealth that makes one wonder if they were flying at all.

Then came a chance gig in Glasgow, which they got by sharing a rehearsal room with all-girl band, Sister Lovers. Upon arrival at the King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut club the manager bluntly refused to add them to the night’s performances. It was only when the Sister Lovers said they wouldn’t play if Oasis were refused, and eventually cut the length of their set to accommodate, that Oasis took to the stage.

As if the fates had been in play the whole time, they were noticed by Creation Records’ Alan McGee, there for one of his own bands, and the path to destiny became clearer to see. They didn’t celebrate that night, they just believed it was meant to be.

This sort of feeling, that it’s just life falling into place, goes someway to explain why they appeared to flirt with implosion at every turn. They weren’t chasing a dream: they were living it.

What that meant did start to differ between Liam and Noel, and this is where the Oasis story becomes a tale between two brothers. Other members became collateral damage in the process. Tony McCarroll was removed as drummer after a final argument with Noel. The songwriter unconvinced he had the ability to perform the upcoming second album’s material.

He had a point. The recording sessions of Definitely Maybe were hindered by McCarroll’s struggle to play from one bar to the next. But the drummer had also become the whipping boy for the other members.

Guigsy also had a nervous meltdown, only to be recalled when his replacement seemed to dislike the pace of the band.

And what a pace.

It was there from the beginning. They never made their first overseas gig in Amsterdam because Liam joined the on-board chaos which result in immediate deportation and time in the ferry’s cells.

Noel wasn’t happy with this incident, Liam thrived on it. It attracted music hooligans; people started going to Oasis gigs for the rowdy atmosphere and the potential for a tussle. Liam became the ringleader, equating aggro and good music as the combination to greatness.

Perhaps that was something to do with his musical beginnings. He’d displayed no interest in music, even mocking his guitar playing brother, but after being hit on the head with a hammer a switch was activated. Afterwards he was all about buying records and dreaming of being a rock ‘n’ roll star. This meant never following rules.

As Liam explains himself: “I thought we were a rock band. Anything goes in Oasis. Some people have rules. Fuck the rules.”

Noel jokingly remarks that the lad who hammered the music into Liam has a lot to answer for.

It sets the polar opposites up for the definition of why today they have no relationship. Noel describes himself as the cat. Admitting he can also be another C word and a bastard. But he didn’t crave attention or need it. Liam was the playful dog whose wagging tail didn’t stop until he had gone too far.

Noel assumed the role of leader which created a power struggle that was always going to reduce the life of the band. But even this Liam trivialises with a story about how his brother’s still angry because he pissed on his stereo when they were younger.

Liam is the eternal jokester and master of the natural one-liner, everything about Noel is more calculated.

When recording songs at the rate of one a day for (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, at times Noel would give Liam one run through on acoustic with vocals only just written, yet they’d be nailed first time, as if sharing some deeper telepathic link.

Some might say they should have stopped before the third album. That they’d peaked too early. The evidence provided in Supersonic: a failed American tour when they mistook crystal meth for cocaine, this off the back of an explosive Japanese experience, to still produce two generation defining albums amidst warring siblings, does seem warranted.

But as Liam says about stopping when you’ve reached the top: “Just cos you’ve kissed the sky, give it a love bite.”

That eagerness – the playful dog – will always want that buzz. Noel appears far removed from it nowadays. Post-cinema release of Supersonic it was Liam backing calls for a reunion, claiming in his mind, Oasis had never split-up.

His mantra in interviews was about his bags being packed and ready. But in each cry for reconciliation he reminded Noel why they no longer spoke. Each started with a plea, and ended in a dig.

But in the process, they reminded the fans why Liam was so engaging in the first place. In one to Sky News, he explained: “But there’ll be no cap in the hand and no banjo, you know what I mean? A little fucking skinny, stringy dog outside his house going ‘please sir, I need a fucking band, mate.’”

In another he said, “Our kid’s going around like I’ve stabbed his fucking cat.”

Amusing, and even Noel may raise a smile, but they also raise the unlikelihood of the reunion Liam himself once dismissed when he thought Beady Eye would fill the void. The grounds for angst are with the common perception of Noel.

Liam refers to him as “Man of the people” because Noel seems to have come out smelling of roses while Liam is seen as the bad guy. But many will vouch for the behind the scenes personalities. As disruptive as Liam may be (has been), there’s always been a frank honesty with him.

Noel is more guarded and plotting. It’s understandable the aggro lifestyle became tiresome but it wrangles his brother that the public image is a manufactured one, that the songwriter in Oasis became part of the machine they defied.

The bitterness can be seen in how he trolls Noel on Twitter.

With Beady Eye, he sang, “Don’t Brother Me.” Surely a message to Noel but that past forms a narrative with tweets like this from earlier in the year (before Supersonic was doing the media rounds):

It’s Liam’s contradictions and quick-to-fire attitude that will drive the wedge between the pair even deeper.

Noel explains it best: “Oasis’ greatest strength was me and Liam. It’s also what drove the band into the ground in the end.”

If the final chapter really has been written, what a great story it turned out to be, Supersonic a special snapshot so the band can “Live Forever.”

Rewarding Boxing Belief

Rewarding Boxing Belief

Sylvester Stallone once again steps into his Rocky Balboa persona. It’s the one that brought him success at a time he was struggling to make ends meet, and the role that revived his career after multiple misfires. After winning a Golden Globe for the latest portrayal of the Philly boxer, and receiving an Academy nomination, it’s time to see if Creed is a movie that can go the distance.

With award season in full swing, and Stallone receiving surprise appreciation, it’s only right the interest in Rocky is once again high on the agenda. But it should be noted Stallone’s nominations have been in the Supporting category and that Creed isn’t a further extension of the Rocky Legacy. That was neatly wrapped up in Rocky Balboa.

This is a story set in a familiar universe but coming from a fresh perspective. What Stallone does here is serve as the cement, bonding the old with the modern, the myth with reality. In doing so he gives an outstanding performance. It is easy to be sceptical about the award nominations. Are they a polite way of noting his lifetime achievements? Absolutely not. Stallone delivers a performance that surpasses the one delivered in Rocky and beyond another else in his long career.

If time catches up with us all, it has caught Rocky and dragged him back to earth.

But Stallone doesn’t hide behind his spectacles in the way Dustin Hoffman did to cover his performance in Papillion. His aged version of Rocky is a genuine examination, leaving every facet of his character open for the world to see. It has every intricate detail of authenticity required to portray the character.

Even in Rocky Balboa, a movie that attempted to press the reset switch on comic book shenanigans and moved the franchise back to drama, the title role was played like he was a wholesome hero. In Creed we see the flaws in Rocky. These human faults add the final level of detail to a character already well covered and much loved.

A character study-esque moment from Stallone wouldn’t be enough to make Creed the movie it is. That’s where Michael B. Jordan comes in. He plays the illegitimate son of legendary deceased boxer, Apollo Creed. Jordan gives a performance that also deserves awards. His level of believability is what assists Stallone in exploring the deeper nuances of the Italian Stallion.

It’s also his story.

As Adonis Johnson, he attempts to make his own path without using his father’s name. He is filled with anger and fear. His birth mother died when he was young, meaning he went through the juvenile system, always determined to fight his corner. Apollo’s widow located Adonis and raised him as her own.

But he has his father’s blood, his passion for boxing, his desire to be the best.

He finds Rocky, after walking away from his easy life and good job, to train like it’s the old days in Philadelphia. Cue the love interest, played by a convincing and impressive Tessa Thompson. She is an upcoming singer with troubles of her own. When her cold exterior melts the two learn to trust and inspire one another.

Also cue the training montages. But they feel fresh and for the first time the plot drives these sequences rather than serves as an excuse for them.

It also includes the best fight scenes seen in a boxing film. And it’s the movie Southpaw wanted to be but came up short. This film does acknowledge the way modern boxing is run, includes the presentation of the modern sport, and still manages to be a drama first.

Tony Bellow, the real life Liverpudlian boxer, could be seen as the only weak link. His character, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, is one-dimensional and lacks any true charisma. But the story is about Adonis. The challenge was never the man opposite him in the ring. And Bellow does bring in-ring craft that enables the fight sequences to excel.

Director Ryan Coogler has surpassed expectation and produced a modern, contemporary movie. It nods to its source material, but unlike The Force Awakens which ran on a nostalgia trip for two hours, the attention is paid out of respect without it ever feeling like a rehash of old ideas. A startling feat when you consider how many underdog tales require the same ingredients.

After its box office success there will be a sequel. Stallone has handed the baton to very capable hands.