Sunday, 24 May 2009

jmag - Crystal Stilts' Alight Of Night

At first, Brooklyn quartet Crystal Stilts’ debut album seems only designed as a distraction for anyone pining for the floppy-haired days of 80s indie rock. The band gives solemn nods to the likes of Joy Division and Jesus and Mary Chain on opener The Dazzled, but further listening reveals them to be a far more unique proposition.

Alongside hallmarks of 80s indie - most obviously singer Brad Hargett’s ghostly, emotionless vocal - Crystal Stilts exhibit a playful 60s-style pop sensibility, seemingly trying to elicit a smile from their indifferent frontman. This joyful drone rock makes for a unique template and Crystal Stilts achieve the rare trick of not sounding like any else around right now.

But the problem with the band’s inspired idea is that it’s their only idea. Once the musical agenda has been set, there’s little experimentation on the album with the small niche they’ve found. As such Alight of Night merely undulates through your ears as one track flows into the next. More pacey tracks like the punky The Sinking and Bright Night might capture the imagination, but as a whole the album just washes over you.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Melbourne Comedy Festival

I was excited about the Melbourne Comedy Festival for two reasons – firstly, my good friend Julia Clark was coming down from Sydney to perform at it so I’d get to have her around for a month; secondly, because since I’ve known Julia my consumption of comedy has steadily increased and now I can’t get enough of it.

I started off seeing Julia of course. After a year of doing stand-up in Sydney, she’d garnered enough of a reputation to land a spot in Comedy Zone, the festival’s showcase of up and coming talent. Alongside her were three acts I’d seen before when they were competing for the spots: Neil Sinclair, Laura Davies and musical duo Smart Casual.

Neil Sinclair's comedy was perfectly pitched for the introductory set. Light and whimsical, he plays around with clever ideas, obvious stereotypes and misdirection to create an accessible and enjoyable set.

Following act Laura Davies was a little harder to enjoy. Seeming awkward and nervous at first, it soon becomes clear this is actually part of her shtick. And as she deconstructs her jokes and plays around with your reaction to them, you realise there’s some clever comedy going on here. If only she could fine tune her delivery, make it a little more confident, you’d be more impressed.

Julia throws a different kind of curveball. There she is, all lovely-looking and smiles; a nice middle-class Englishwoman you may think. Then she opens with a line about her mother masturbating. Her measured and ultimately affectionate jibes at things like Australians, stand-up comedians and public transport reveal a sharp wit and an enjoyably twisted sense of humour. Dark and funny, you can’t help but laugh.

Smart Casual perform their belly-achingly funny songs with deadpan delivery and a smattering of stand-up. ‘Who prefers musical comedy to stand-up?’ they provocatively ask at the beginning. By the end of their set they’d be guaranteed a full room of hands.

At the Hi-Fi Bar the festival runs The Festival Club, where most of the comics perform a short set during the month. On the night I attend I see and fall in love with Russell Kane. This cockney geezer plays against the stereotype, though his father seemingly fits the bill perfectly. Playing out his difficult relationship with his dad (he’s excessively macho, Kane’s the shy geek) seems a little too personal at times but Kane imbues the stories with universal themes and rapid-fire humour. He’s a whirring ball of energy that doesn’t stop moving, and neither do his jokes.

Tim Vine follows. The king of the pun-liner, Vine’s delivery is sometimes a little clunky cos his jokes are so short. There’s no flow, but he is funny. When the jokes are done he gets the DJ to play a tune called Pen Behind The Ear (the lyrics of which don’t venture beyond the title) and proceeds to try and throw a ballpoint and get it to land behind his ear. This goes on for 10 minutes. Amazingly, by the end of it all of us in the audience are rooting for him and when it finally lands he gets a standing ovation. Simple things.

Then there was Randy the Puppet. It’s a puppet that swears a lot, and not much else. Awful.

One afternoon I caught 1000 Years of German Humour. Thankfully it didn’t last longer than 10 minutes. That was dull enough. Ten centuries of it would have been unbearable. It elicited a shrug rather than a titter. Julia later ripped into it, describing it as ‘lazy humour based on lazy stereotypes’. She may have been right.

I was treated to a double bill of comedy on Sunday evening. First up was Felicity Ward who led us through her experiences as an ugly child. Which would have been more convincing had she not been quite cute as a child. It was a great performance – Ward has natural comic timing. But it could have done with more actual jokes.

Jim Jeffries won a new fan when I went to see him. Visceral, twisted and unflinching, Jeffries is an Australian comic that has forged his career in the UK. He explores sex, race, sex, relationships, burglary and sex without any regard for the sensitivity of any minorities in the audience. As he says about the gays: ‘If you can take a dick up your arse, you can take a joke.’ You can’t argue with that.

British comic Daniel Kitson declined to take part in the festival. Instead he came over and used the ready-made audience of comedy fans to test out new material, selling the tickets himself from an obscure record shop. How very indie. The festival organisers merely rolled their eyes. Shambolic and rambling as the material inevitably was, the 90 minutes that Kitson was on stage provided the surprisingly patient audience with consistent and insightful humour. Sharp and occasionally aggressive, Kitson gives clever twists to everyday subjects and leaves you both thoughtful and laughing.

On the last weekend of the festival I saw Stan Stanley, another British comic. I’d met him a few weeks previously through friends of friends and was keen to check him out. I found a comedian, heavily tired from his young son’s birthday party, who laboured through his set (which did show signs of promise with some genuinely funny material) and had seemingly made no attempt to tailor his stories to the Australian audience. He even looked at his watch five minutes towards the end and bemoaned the fact he still had time to kill. He then launched into a gag heavy with Brit-references and not really that funny. Cringe-worthy.

All weekend we tried desperately to get tickets for young comic Tom Ballard, but he was sold out thanks to winning an award at the festival’s awards show and his breakfast show on radio station triple j. Instead I finished the festival on Dave Jory. A friend of Julia’s, she tells me he’s normally more ‘edgy’, but for this festival the Aussie comic has gone with a lighter set revolving around his love of cats. It’s entertaining because of his delivery – he’s a great story-teller. But the jokes were thin on the ground and it felt like a flat end to an exciting month.