Sunday, May 22, 2016

Lemonade - Queen B stages a terrific comeback

album review

On her sixth studio album, Lemonade, pop royalty Beyonce Knowles celebrates womanhood as well as her African-American and Southern heritage

Album: Lemonade
Artist: Beyoncé

Few artists know how to command the world’s attention like Beyoncé. Even though the release of ‘Formation’ had already tipped listeners off to the impending arrival of her new record, premiering the set as a surprise visual album on HBO was a stroke of marketing genius. Plus the contents of the album effortlessly served as a built-in promotional tool, feeding the public’s insatiable appetite for celebrity drama, and guaranteeing an avalanche of social media chatter that would make it impossible for anyone with Internet access to ignore the fact that a new Beyoncé record had hit the shelves (or, more accurately, had been made exclusively available on her husband Jay Z’s streaming service Tidal). Beyoncé is clearly a terrific business woman, but ultimately the undeniable thing about the new disc is that Lemonade truly is a terrific pop album.

A strong collection of 12 tracks, the diva’s sixth studio release finds her singing about cheating, betrayal, anger, hurt, healing, and reconciliation while celebrating womanhood as well as her African-American and Southern heritage.

A host of collaborators are on hand to help shape these songs, with contributions and samples from a wide musical spectrum coming together to form a genre-spanning brew. The ease with which Beyoncé incorporates other people’s talents into her vision makes the resulting effort feel seamless and proves that an artist can retain her identity while creating with other musicians.

There is conviction in every word she sings; you believe her when she sounds wounded on the opener ‘Pray You Catch Me’ and lashes out at the object of her ire in ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, a fierce rocker featuring the ever-awesome Jack White. The wickedly catchy ‘Hold Up’ borrows a line from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘Maps’ and also gives writing credit to artists as diverse as Joshua Tillman (a.k.a Father John Misty) and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. ‘Freedom’, a stomping anthem of resilience, includes a guest verse from Kendrick Lamar and is one of the album’s finest cuts.

Whether she is working with James Blake (‘Forward’) or the Weeknd (‘6 Inch’), channelling her inner rock goddess with a little help from White or going country on ‘Daddy’s Lessons’, Beyoncé continuously benefits from her ability to recognize other artists’ strengths and make them work for herself, and remains fully in-charge of her own narrative.

Throughout Lemonade, her voice shines, communicating both her confidence and vulnerability on what is probably her best album to date. With arrangements that range from sparse and intimate to bold and dramatic, this is a diverse, yet cohesive record and whether it was fuelled by personal troubles or not, her musical journey comes off as heartfelt and sincere. You don’t have to be a fan of R&B to appreciate just how well-crafted this project is. There is range, depth, and emotional resonance here that few of the singer’s peers can equal, and that’s what makes Lemonade a near-perfect pop album and one of the standout releases of the year so far.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 22nd May, 2016 *

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Almost Interesting - where the wind blows

book review

In his new memoir, Saturday Night Live alum David Spade recounts some of the elements that have shaped him as a person and a comedian

Book: Almost Interesting: The Memoir
Author: David Spade

For over four decades, Saturday Night Live has been serving as a launching pad for comedians and introducing talented young performers to the world. One of its many alumni include David Spade, the American actor who got his big break when he joined SNL in 1990 and then ventured into movies and sitcoms while continuing his stand-up career. The performer discusses the ups and downs in his private and work life in his new memoir, Almost Interesting, a witty look at some of the elements that have shaped Spade as both a person and a comedian.

Laced with self-deprecating humour, the autobiography finds the actor recounting incidents from his past and detailing important moments in a friendly and affable, albeit often crude style.

The book begins with a surprisingly poignant look at his childhood, which was fraught with difficulties. Born premature and unwell, Spade grew up in relative poverty after his father bailed on the family, leaving his mother to raise her three sons by working two jobs; she subsequently remarried, but his step-father, a vet with PTSD, eventually killed himself.

After discussing his early life and personal struggles, Spade talks about venturing into the world of comedy, charting his “slow, incremental rise to medium fame” and shedding light on how much effort it takes to break into the comedy scene and succeed in show business. The project that gets the most focus in the book is Saturday Night Live. From joining the show to being a part of it for multiple seasons, the comedian mines his time on the program for musings about the people he encountered while discussing how difficult it was for him to adapt to its fast-paced, competitive style and the “culture of comparison” that it bred. There are anecdotes about working with his SNL colleagues – which included Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, and most prominently Chris Farley, who was “a big part of [his] life, for a small amount of time” and clearly meant a lot to him – as well as memorable encounters with the weekly guest hosts and other prominent celebrities – including recollections of annoying David Bowie, meeting Nirvana, getting tattooed by Sean Penn, taking a piece of the Pope photo that Sinead O’Connor ripped, and landing in the bad books of Eddie Murphy.

About two thirds of the way in, however, the book takes an abrupt turn and goes off track; what started as a chronological memoir unexpectedly halts and turns into a random collection of essays that aren’t nearly as appealing as the writer would have hoped. Instead of delving into his time working on sitcoms like (the delightful) Just Shoot Me! (1997 – 2003) and (the less delightful) Rules of Engagement (2007 – 2013), the actor offers chapters about being attacked by his assistant, getting robbed by his housekeeper, doing too much coke, and also dispenses dating advice. Curiously, there is next to no mention of anything from the last 15 years, including his work, like the sitcoms, or the developments in his life, like the birth of his daughter. The choice to leave out all his more recent projects makes absolutely no sense, especially considering how short Almost Interesting is.

Spade obviously isn’t a highbrow humorist, and you have to wade through a lot of crass frat-boy humour to get to the point, but thanks to the writer’s energetic style and self-deprecating voice, Almost Interesting is a charming, engaging (albeit incomplete) look at the life of a fairly interesting person who has always been surrounded by people far more interesting than himself. And while it is anything but essential reading – the author himself begins by saying it is “meant to be read when super bored, then forgotten fifteen minutes later” – Almost Interesting is a funny, entertaining volume with some touching recollections from his early life and interesting observations from his professional career. The book also offers a glimpse at the world of American comedy and how it operates, and readers who are interested in the behind-the-scenes Hollywood action (and don’t find crude accounts off-putting) will enjoy this quick read.

- Sameen Amer 

Instep, The News on Sunday - 15th May, 2016 *

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Rogue Lawyer - playing the devil’s advocate

book review

John Grisham’s Rogue Lawyer lacks a gripping central plot driving the narrative

Book: Rogue Lawyer
Author: John Grisham

Over the last two and a half decades, John Grisham has established himself not just as the world’s favourite legal fiction writer but as one of the most successful novelists of recent times. Since leaving his job as a lawyer to become a full-time writer, the American author has been churning out at least one novel per year. But even though millions of readers around the globe have been loyally consuming his work, none of them are likely to claim that his more recent efforts have been among his best. It is perhaps a good thing then that the author has tried something a bit different with his latest novel, Rogue Lawyer.

The book follows the story of Sebastian Rudd, a defence attorney who takes the challenging cases that no one else wants. His clients are often guilty, their crimes often heinous, but Rudd will defend anyone. After all, he tells us, “every defendant, regardless of how despicable the person or his crime, is entitled to a lawyer”, and someone has to represent even the most wicked criminals.

Law is his life, an “always consuming and occasionally fulfilling” occupation that leaves little room for family and friends, although he admits from the get-go that he simply does not possess the “patience and understanding necessary to maintain friendships”. His lone accomplice is Partner, a former client who now serves as his “driver, bodyguard, confidant, paralegal, caddie, and only friend”. He also has a (seemingly perfect) seven-year old son, Starcher, with his vindictive ex-wife, Judith, who is also a lawyer, and has a habit of dragging him into court in the hopes of stripping him of his visitation rights.

Rudd isn’t a typical lawyer. Instead of maintaining a traditional office, he operates out of a customised black Ford cargo van. He carries a gun, and in the midst of nasty trials, moves from one cheap motel to the next every week, well aware that there are plenty of people out there who would like to see him dead.

As the narrator, the street lawyer tells us about some of his legal escapades, focusing, more or less, on one case at a time, with situations and repercussions getting more intertwined as things go along. His clients are a varied bunch — a teenage dropout with piercing and tattoos charged with killing two little girls; a drug trafficking crime lord on death row; a cage fighter who attacked the referee. But things start to get out of hand when he crosses paths with a suspected kidnapper who may or may not know where a missing girl is.

With a series of cases presented in the six sections of the book, Rogue Lawyer comes off as a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel. While the approach is different from your standard Grisham legal thriller, it almost feels like the author is putting together scraps of unused ideas and packaging them in the shape of a novel. There isn’t a strong, gripping, suspenseful central plot driving the narrative. Some of the strings do come together towards the end, but not necessarily in a particularly surprising way.

Many of the secondary characters, like Rudd’s ex-wife and son, aren’t developed beyond their limited, stereotypical roles in the story. How things unfold — including some of Rudd’s shady legal manoeuvres and manipulations as well as how opportunities just present themselves to him — often seem unconvincing.

It is also hard to figure out who the reader is supposed to be rooting for. The book’s protagonist has the makings of an interesting character, but Grisham pushes him too firmly into the sleazy lawyer (and terrible father) corner for him to be a likable character. His guilty clients, too, generate no empathy. Even the justice system and law enforcement agencies are painted as corrupt and incompetent.

To his credit though, the writer really does know how to keep you turning the pages. The book is fast-paced and easy to read, and Grisham’s wry wit makes the proceedings more entertaining. The themes of some of the sections are quite compelling, and it feels like a waste that they weren’t developed further, with the author focusing on one main case.

With the choice to explore multiple arcs, Rogue Lawyer doesn’t read like a typical Grisham novel, but this approach doesn’t really pay off, particularly because the stories ultimately don’t come together in a cohesive, exciting way. It is quite impressive that Grisham can still come up with so many interesting ideas; just exploring these ideas further could have made much of a difference. If the plot wasn’t as scattershot, the threads were injected with some suspense, and the protagonist was a little more likable, this tale of a rogue lawyer who will defend anyone could have been a lot more exciting.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 8th May, 2016 *

Everything at Once - a slideshow of pleasant rock ditties

album review

Travis’ new album may not be very experimental but offers some delightful, easy listening

Album:Everything at Once
Band: Travis

The release of their sophomore album, The Man Who (1999), brought Travis international recognition in the late ’90s, turning them into one of Britain’s most well-known post-Britpop outfits. But even though their popularity began to taper off in the early ’00s, the Scottish foursome – who are often attributed with paving the way for bands like Coldplay, Keane, and Snow Patrol – have continued to make touching, heart-warming music – charming their loyal fan base with their beautiful melodies and catchy hooks. Now, nearly one and a half decades, since a rainy Glastonbury day turned them into the talk of the town, the group has released their eighth album, Everything at Once, another set of gentle rock ditties that, just like its predecessors, may not be very experimental, but remains consistently pleasant.

Written primarily by the band members and produced by Michael Ilbert, the album comes three years after their previous release Where You Stand (2013). For the most part, Travis doesn’t wander too far from the familiar path of soft rock crooning. The synths embedded in the buoyant first single ‘Everything at Once’ might suggest that the group could head in a different direction and expand their palette on the new record, but – either thankfully or disappointingly, depending on your vantage point – that doesn’t happen.

The album primarily relies on the classic Travis sound, built on friendly guitars, light drums, and soaring choruses, delivered through Fran Healy’s instantly recognizable vocals. Songs like the  tender ‘All of the Places’ and ‘3 Miles High’, the mellow ‘Idlewild’ (featuring English singer Josephine Oniyama), and the beautiful album closer ‘Strangers on a Train’ showcase the band’s skill at making their craft seem so effortless.

The uplifting ‘Magnificent Time’, made with a little help from Keane’s Tim Rice Oxley, encourages listeners to “cease the day”, and even though its earnest sweetness may be too cheesy for some listeners, it is nonetheless hard to resist. And the standout ‘Animals’, built on the idea that despite everything we’re still animals, is an easy reminder of why the world fell in love with Travis in the first place.

The band’s sonic canvas may not be very expansive, but there is still variety in the ten songs they deliver on Everything at Once. Travis sounds confident on this record, at ease with their place in the world of music and not eager to tinker with their style. The album will appeal to the listeners who have enjoyed the group’s output over the last decade, although it is not likely to attract attention beyond their established audience; those hoping for an evolution in style won’t be impressed with this effort. Also, the songs are generally very short; most clock in under 3 minutes, and some leave you wishing they were a bit longer.

Travis isn’t breaking new ground or pushing boundaries with Everything at Once, but their predictability doesn’t make their songs any less enjoyable. Yes, they haven’t tried anything particularly different on this record, but sometimes Travis’ gentle touch is just what their fans need.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 8th May, 2016*

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Ice Age: The Great Egg-Scapade - don't eggs-pect much

television special review

Ice Age: The Great Egg-Scapade is spirited watch-together fare, but nothing exceptional 

Ice Age: The Great Egg-Scapade

Starring: Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Josh Peck, Keke Palmer, Seth Green, Taraji P. Henson, Queen Latifah
Directed by: Ricardo Curtis

Even though it started with a warm first instalment that was populated with lovable, amusing characters, the Ice Age series has since been losing its charm with each new addition to the franchise. As Blue Sky Studios prepares to release the fifth film in the series this summer, they have decided to whet our Ice Age appetite with a television special.

The short episode titled The Great Egg-Scapade celebrates two springtime occasions: The main arc revolves around Easter while a side plot focuses on April Fools’ Day.

Set after the events of the fourth film Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012), Egg-Scapade finds the prehistoric gang dealing with the consequences of one of clumsy sloth Sid’s (voiced by John Leguizamo) latest goofs, while opossums Crash (Seann William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck) try, very unsuccessfully, to prank young mammoth Peaches (Keke Palmer).

After nurturing “three beautiful dinosaur eggs” in a previous instalment, the sloth comes up with the idea of an egg-sitting service, much to the concern of mammoth Manny (Ray Romano) and saber-toothed cat Diego (Denis Leary) who are certain this enterprise will not end well. Sid convinces a bird mom (Taraji P Henson) to entrust her precious, soon-to-hatch egg to him. At her recommendation, other animals also decide to avail the service, and Sid soon has a dozen eggs in his care. But, predictably, he falls asleep on the job, giving pirate bunny Squint (Seth Green) – who is seeking revenge for a prior slight – a chance to steal the eggs and hold them hostage while he demands that the group build him a new ship. It is thereby up to Manny and the gang to rescue the eggs and reunite them with their worried parents.

With each new Ice Age adventure, it becomes more and more obvious that the studio is eager to capitalise on the brand’s success, but hasn’t really been able to come up with the kind of compelling stories and interesting scripts that would make these outings a must watch for animation fans. In the same vein, this 25-minute special is fun and watchable, but doesn’t really offer anything particularly innovative or memorable.

As the proceedings are bombarded with Easter references while the origins of traditions, such as decorated Easter eggs and the Easter bunny, are established, it becomes fairly obvious how the events will unfold. The adventure is lively but predictable, and the zany antics are more likely to please younger viewers.

If you aren’t a diehard fan of the franchise, then you won’t miss much if you skip this special, and wait instead for the fifth, full-length film, Ice Age: Collision Course, which comes out this July. But if you can’t resist anything that bears the Ice Age title or simply love Easter specials, then The Great Egg-Scapade will help you while away half an hour and offer a few chuckles along the way.

Rating: 3 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Hi Five, The Express Tribune - 1st May, 2016 *