Sunday, November 24, 2013

A return to the signature

album review

Travis delivers more of the same - a good thing for loyal fans who like them just the way they are

Band: Travis
Album: Where You Stand

Their 1999 hit 'Why Does It Always Rain on Me?' gave Travis immense recognition and propelled their sophomore album, the terrific The Man Who (1999), to the top of the charts. The post-Britpop band has released a number of records since, but their overall commercial appeal has tapered off in the last decade. Yes they have retained their core fan base, but they have never been able to capture the attention of the mainstream audience like they did in the late '90s.

Their new album probably won't change things much.

The Scottish band has returned after a five year absence with their seventh studio record, Where You Stand. An affable collection of melodic pop rock, it's mostly mid-tempo, soft-toned, and often gentle in its approach with enough subtle variation to keep the record from becoming too monotone. This is basically Travis doing what they do best: crafting beautiful, contemplative pop rock. They're not trying to be modern, edgy, commercial, or even inventive. They're just being Travis; lucky for them, they're quite good at it.

From the soaring melody of opener 'Mother' to the piano balladry of closer 'Big Screen', the 11 tracks that make up Where You Stand offer little touches throughout that become more apparent with each repeat listen. The more straightforward songs - like the ode to unconditional support in the form of lead single 'Where You Stand' and the somewhat 'Walking in the Sun' reminiscent 'On My Wall' - revel in the band's effortless melodic sensibilities and the comfort of singer and primary lyricist Fran Healy's familiar voice. The few variant efforts come in the shape of the tale of betrayal in the eerie 'Another Guy' and the trip-hop of 'New Shoes'.

But on the whole it's all so trademark Travis that it's hard to see what, if anything, producer Michael Ilbert brings to the album, and therein might lie a problem (as well as a potential solution). Perhaps working with someone more dynamic could have helped the group lift their record from pleasant to remarkable, and create something more memorable while staying true to their sound.

Where You Stand is basically what you expect a Travis record to be. This is gentle music and a comforting reprieve from the sea of EDM that has taken over the charts, and it reveals a band that is relaxed, content, and self-assured. But while it's warm and sincere, it is also predictable and does little to change the band's perception or win over their detractors. Those who have found them mundane, dull, and clich├ęd so far won't change their opinion after listening to this set. For the rest of us, Where You Stand is nice, familiar, and reassuring. If you have fond memories of the band from their The Man Who and The Invisible Band era, then this record is likely to delight you. And it might even make you find your old Travis records, dust them off, and give them another spin.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 24th November, 2013 *

Friday, November 22, 2013

For the love of the band

book review

Book: Dare to Dream: Life as One Direction
By: One Direction

Unless you’ve been away from planet Earth for the last few years, you must have heard of One Direction, the British pop group that has taken the world by storm. Sure they have their detractors – being a manufactured boy band that was created on a reality TV show and makes cookie cutter pop music isn’t the best recipe for critical acclaim – but they are still Simon Cowell’s most successful product. Their rabid fan base is made up of millions of youngsters around the world who adore the band, and repeatedly want the entire universe to know that they adore the band, thereby relentlessly making the Internet a more annoying place.

But the indisputable fact remains that Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, Niall Horan, and Zayn Malik, put together make up one of the biggest teen pop sensations of recent years, amassing hit singles, selling millions of albums, topping the charts in dozens of countries, and breaking world records along the way. And they have relayed some of their stories in 2011’s Dare to Dream: Life as One Direction.

An official 1D book purportedly penned by the members of the band, Dare to Dream sees each member relay some of their earliest memories, first experiences, recollection from their time on The X Factor UK in 2010, and embracing their meteoric rise and consequent fame. Harry, Liam, Louis, Niall, and Zayn each have their own separate section in the book in which they share their journey as well as lots of pictures, ranging from some childhood snaps to post fame and tour photographs.

Saying that the book is essential for their fans would be like stating that the grass is green and the sky is blue. How could any obsessed Directioner not want to know random details, no matter how inconsequential, about the members of their favourite group? Do you know how many of them auditioned for The X Factor before and were rejected? How about which one of the boys was born with only one functional kidney? And who was such a good runner that he was on the reserve list for the 2012 Olympics? Want to find out what their individual favourite films, albums, bands, foods, drinks, shops, perfumes, games, and iPhone apps are? It’s all in there, waiting to be perused by the fanatical tween and teen masses.

To be clear though, the book isn’t extremely comprehensive and all encompassing. It is short and a very quick read, written in simple language easy enough for young readers to follow. And some of their personality does seem to have been airbrushed and sanitized to preserve their image. It was clearly written with their fan base in mind, and there is enough in there to make their diehard followers pleased and entertained.

If you don’t like One Direction then you have no reason to buy Dare to Dream; it is highly unlikely that reading it will provide you any astonishing insight or life altering revelations about the group that will convert you into a fan. But if you love the band and for some strange reason still don’t have the book, then now would be a good time to rectify that.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 22nd November, 2013 *

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The World's End

movie review

The World's End ***1/2

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Rosamund Pike
Director: Edgar Wright 
Tagline: Prepare to get annihilated

Whenever director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost join forces, thoroughly entertaining madness is sure to ensue. This British team has now returned to wind up their so called Cornetto trilogy, a set of standalone comedic genre spoof movies, with the science fiction comedy The World's End, and the result is as amusing as you would expect.

In the same vein as the first two films in the trilogy - the zombie movie send-up Shaun of the Dead (2004) and the buddy-cop action spoof Hot Fuzz (2007) - the third flick also delivers drama, emotions, action, and their standard brand of cheeky humour along the way.

The movie begins as Gary King (Simon Pegg), a middle-aged layabout, resolves to track down his estranged friends - Andy (Nick Frost), Steven (Paddy Considine), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and Oliver (Martin Freeman) - and complete the Golden Mile, an epic pub crawl through their hometown of Newton Haven that the group attempted (but did not complete) as teenagers over 20 years ago. Gary clearly hasn't been very successful at growing up, and the fact that his friends have moved on with their lives and settled down doesn't dampen his spirits. Before you know it, the reluctant crew has been coerced, one at a time, to join him for a quest to have a pint at each of the dozen bars on the course that concludes at The World's End, the last pub on the route.

As the five friends return to their hometown and set out to conquer the Golden Mile once again, old issues start to spill out, and resentments resurface; a few pubs later, the group are about to call it quits, when they realize that something peculiar is going on in the town. The film gains momentum as it takes a turn into science fiction when the quintet uncovers why Newton Haven has been transformed into an oddly sinister, Stepford-ish place.

Scripted by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, The World's End is a talky comedy with plenty of well-choreographed action that delivers both excitement and laughs, and a good soundtrack to boot. It goes without saying that the film is well cast and that the comedic talent of the main actors is a big asset for the movie. Pegg and Frost embrace the reversal of roles from their previous efforts; Frost now plays the responsible straight man, while Pegg play the obnoxious yet strangely charming Gary, who despite his self-centred and childish antics exudes enough charisma to take his weary friends as well as the audience along for the ride.

The film is well constructed and generally very sharp in its social satire. Offering a take on friendship, arrested development, addiction, disappointment, living in the past, and modern life, The World's End comes with a layer of sadness just underneath its often zany surface if you take a moment to think about it; but Wright doesn't often give you that chance, hurling the viewer into the chaotic mayhem as the comedy riots on. However, the proceedings could have been more even. Perhaps 12 pubs might have been a few too many for the cinematic crawl, and the film does not have a sustained level of energy throughout. And enjoying some of its choices and its sometimes subtle humour might just come down to personal preferences; for instance, while I wasn't thoroughly satisfied with the ending, I'm sure many viewers will be.

On the whole, The World's End is an amusing conclusion to an impressive trilogy that embraces its very English humour and revels in its Britishness. It's variously smart and silly, and propelled by a very talented cast. If you've seen Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, then you already know what to expect. And if you enjoyed those two films, then there's a very high chance you will enjoy this one too.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 10th November, 2013 *

Backstreet’s back, ALRIGHT!

album review

Band: Backstreet Boys
Album: In a World Like This

At some point during the last decade, while many of us were busy forgetting they exist, the Backstreet Boys became the biggest selling boy band of all time. This clearly indicates that even though their mainstream popularity may have waned over the years, the group has maintained a steady fan base to whom they still remain relevant for some reason. Now it looks like the band is trying to remind the more indifferent of us that yes they are still together, because it turns out that a thoroughly amusing cameo in the recent comedy film This is the End wasn’t their only contribution to the world of entertainment this year; the quintet also has a new album out.

Their eighth studio release (the first on their own independent label, following their departure from Jive), In a World Like This sees the group go back to its original lineup with Kevin Richardson’s return, making this their first album as a five piece since 2005’s Never Gone.

The former titans of teen pop, who celebrated their 20th anniversary together this year, now seem less inclined towards dance pop and more eager to delve into mid-tempo adult contemporary. The group members have some writing credits on the album, but a host of producers, primarily Martin Terefe, Max Martin, Dan Muckala, and Morgan Taylor Reid, are also on hand to write and produce the 12 songs that make up the album. Max Martin, as always, provides smooth pop grandeur in the form of the title track ‘In a World Like This’; slap a One Direction logo on this title track and you will have an instant hit. Reid contributes some of the more up tempo ditties, including the promotional single ‘Permanent Stain’, as well as the OneRepublic-ish ‘Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of)’. But it is Terefe who adds the most texture to the album; his influence clearly reflects in tracks like the Jason Mraz reminiscent ‘Trust Me’ and the Babyface tinged ‘Try’.

In A World Like This is polished, competent pop that might be more mature than their earlier efforts but is still more or less tailored for the same segment that BSB have generally targeted. Its ideas, lyrics and presentation might be cheesy, but they are unabashedly so. The group has worked with personnel that nicely complement the vocal harmony style that they are well known for, and you can hear what the producers (Terefe in particular) add to the material. But they haven’t exactly gone out of their way to try something different, and their appeal still remains limited. Detractors will continue to find them predictably beige and unsurprisingly inoffensive. Will any of these songs have the same hit of nostalgia that ‘Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)’ still has fifteen years from now? Probably not, and if you bailed on the Backstreet Boys a decade ago, then the album doesn’t give you any reasons to rethink that decision. But if you’ve stuck it out with them this long, then In a World Like This doesn’t give you any reasons to abandon ship now.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 10th November, 2013 *

Friday, November 08, 2013

unSweetined

book review

Book: unSweetined: A Memoir
Author: Jodie Sweetin with Jon Warech

The pressures that come with early success and fame sometimes lead child stars down a path of struggles, unhappiness, and self destruction, and their subsequent downfall often grabs the attention of the public and becomes incessant tabloid fodder. Actress Jodie Sweetin is no stranger to this phenomenon.

Those who have seen the popular sitcom Full House (1987 – 1995) will remember Sweetin as Stephanie Tanner, the bubbly middle child of the Tanner family, and her oft-repeated catchphrase “how rude!”. But those who have been paying attention to the gossip columns will know that she has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons for the last few years.

A working child actress at the age of five, and part of a long running, internationally syndicated sitcom till she was thirteen, Sweetin appeared to be living her dream and seemed to have a bright future ahead of her. Instead, she found herself stuck in the cycle of addiction, battling drug and alcohol dependence for years. She shares this story in her 2009 tome unSweetined: A Memoir, opening up about her troubled past, addiction and recovery, and coming to terms with her choices.

The young actress talks about her childhood, how she landed the Full House role, her experience of being on the television show, working with her famous co-stars (including Bob Saget, John Stamos, Candace Cameron, and the Olsen twins), and enjoying the perks of being on a hit TV series. But while juggling school and working on Full House at the same time, the busy life of a child actress left her with very little time to be a kid and proved to be overwhelming, leaving her yearning for normalcy and a chance to be like everyone else. The end of the show made her feel not like a job was coming to an end but like her life was ending. Then the fact that she couldn’t land subsequent lead roles left her “completely confused and at a loss for what I was going to do next, where I was going to be, and more important, who I was.”

A glass of wine at Full House co-star Candace Cameron’s wedding in June 1996 started what would eventually become full-on addiction as the teenager ended up using alcohol to mentally check out of reality. Drugs would follow, fuelled further by her desire to escape and be the complete opposite of Stephanie Tanner. Sweetin writes about the bad times she then went through, including rehab visits, relapse and recovery, and near-death experiences, as well as the role her adoption might have played in her eventual addiction. Meanwhile, her personal life was also falling to pieces, with the dissolution of her first marriage, then the disintegration of her second marriage (through which she has a daughter, Zoie) which was ongoing at the time this book was written. (The now-31-year-old is currently going through her third separation/divorce, and also has a daughter, Beatrix, with her now estranged third husband.)

Based on its subject matter, you can guess that unSweetined obviously isn’t a fun, light read. Reading about someone’s life falling apart is heartbreaking, and the actress hopes that the book will help people “have a little understanding and empathy for what people in [her] situation go through”.

The book is, however, not overly detailed. While it sheds light on many of her struggles, at times it feels a little guarded, and by the end it heads into the direction of preemptive damage control. She clearly wants to relay her side of the story as far as her troubles are concerned, but unSweetined was written amidst “financial issues, a pending divorce, a custody battle, and a fight for sobriety,” which is why at some points, especially towards the end, Sweetin does not seem like the most objective, impartial, and reliable voice.

Still, unSweetined is a quick and affecting read, and Jodie Sweetin’s transformation from a happy-go-lucky kid to troubled teen and then her journey on the road to recovery helps readers understand why child stars burn out and just how difficult it is to beat addiction.

- S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 8th November, 2013 *