sat 22/11/2014

2011: Siren Songs, Top Tales, and Farewell to the Mavericks | Film reviews, news & interviews

2011: Siren Songs, Top Tales, and Farewell to the Mavericks

A bumper year for female music-makers and literary film adaptations. But loss, too

Joan as Police Woman's Joan Wasser: aural shagpileThatcher Keats

We have, thankfully, long since moved beyond the point where there's any need to delineate or categorise works of art according to gender. However, looking back at 2011 it's hard to escape the conclusion that the most compelling music emerged from the mouths and minds of women.

Mara Carlyle’s Floreat is simply a triumph. Her songs depart from points as varied as John Dowland and Hot Chip to encompass music hall, jazz, classical and peppy electronic pop, all strung together to create something unified and entirely her own. There’s nothing clever-clever about any of it, and while at times deeply moving it's full of playfulness and real joie de vivre.

It was an annus horribilis for anyone with a soft spot for inspirational and influential Scottish folk mavericks

Laura Marling’s third album, A Creature I Don’t Know, makes good on every promise her music made previously, while Malian singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara arrived with the irresistibly sun-struck Fatou, a mighty fine piece of work in any language. And the fact that it was released at the very start of the year is no reason to overlook Joan As Police Woman’s The Deep Field, a wonderful, slightly loopy record that has lasted the distance. It’s as thick, warm (and occasionally as cheesy) as shagpile, luxuriating in its lush Seventies soul textures.  

Of the male contenders, Fionn Regan’s 100 Acres of Sycamore is a ravishing album of strings-burnished autumnal acoustica, a swoonsome thing which – woozily but with great concentration, like a drunk on the long walk home –  traces the arc of a bruising love affair. The penultimate song is called “Vodka Sorrow”; need I say more? There were great records by Tom Waits (Bad as Me), Destroyer (Kaputt), The Black Keys (El Camino) and The Waterboys, whose successful marriage of the poetry of WB Yeats to the most stirring music Mike Scott has written in perhaps 20 years made An Appointment With Mr Yeats a triumph.

The Waterboys perform "Sweet Dancer"

Out in the field, some memorable nights still linger. I won’t easily forget Amy LaVere and her double bass strutting their stuff on a tiny stage, nor – for very different reasons – catching one of Jackie Leven’s final shows, just three months before his premature death in November. He was as profane and as profound as ever, but had I known it would be last time I’d ever see him sing I'd have listened just that little bit harder. While the death of Amy Winehouse naturally got the greatest attention, the loss of Leven and the great Bert Jansch made 2011 an annus horribilis not just for anyone with a soft spot for inspirational and influential Scottish folk mavericks, but to anybody who loves music.

The Slab Boys reunion at the Traverse in Edinburgh was funny, moving and enlightening – Robbie Coltrane and Bill Paterson were among the actors from the original play who appeared on stage to read and reminisce while its creator, John Byrne, added the odd acid interjection. Less successful was Abi Morgan’s 27 just around the corner at the Lyceum, a dry old thing ruminating on science and religion which never caught light. Also on my Edinburgh patch, it was heartening to see the revamped Scottish National Portrait Gallery reopen with style and panache.

On television, all else was eclipsed by Top Boy, Ronan Bennett’s unmissable four-parter. A perfect storm of utterly plausible writing and terrifically naturalistic performances, throughout the week the feeling grew that we were watching a landmark piece of work which said something valuable about Britain in 2011. Twenty Twelve was less weighty but highly amusing, with Jessica Hynes stealing the show (although perhaps we could live with seeing a touch less of Hugh Bonneville next year?). 

I had reservations about le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy working on the big screen, but it seemed to grow in stature despite being condensed. Tomas Alfredson's artfully paced direction and Gary Oldman's beautifully controlled central performance as Smiley delivered us deep into the world of these disaffected men, with all their suspicions, uprooted loyalties and unfulfilled yearnings.

In Cary Fukunaga's stark, visceral Jane Eyre the elements rightfully took a leading role alongside a fine central performance from Mia Wasikowska (pictured above right). The Guard was slight and undeniably shaky in places but still worth watching, if only to admire another larger-than-life yet oddly truthful portrayal of a flawed anti-hero from the great Brendan Gleeson.

I’ve read a lot of good books this year, but the one I enjoyed the most was Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk, a new Sherlock Holmes novel which – as it must – races through each ridiculous scenario with a poker face, therefore allowing the reader to settle back and enjoy an almost indecent amount of fun.

2011 Highlight: Top Boy.

2011 Letdown: The Edinburgh International Film Festival was little short of a fiasco.

2012 Recommendation: It's hardly hip to say so, but I hope next year Simple Minds undergo a deserved rehabilitation. The 5 x 5 (1978-1982) box-set containing their first five albums will be released in February and is a compelling document of a young, innovative, rather magical band. Their upcoming UK tour playing only songs from those records should be equally essential.

Simple Minds perform "I Travel" in 1980

Top Boy felt like a landmark piece of work which said something valuable about Britain in 2011

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