Poor Ruby Suns. You work for months and months, site site day and night, seek in a windowless studio writing, this recording and producing your third album, tweaking knobs, perfecting your art and getting all excited about it, only to get to release date to find that numerous other bands with a similar musical style and influence have released their latest critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums before you. Gutted. While Yeasayer, Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes bask in the glory of recent albums that made the public and critics alike sit up and applaud, new album ‘Fight Softly’ from kiwi band The Ruby Suns just sounds like more of the same. And perhaps, dare I say it, not even as good? It’s even more disheartening when you think that The Ruby Suns released their first self titled electro indie pop album in 2005, when ‘Fleet Foxes’ and ‘Odd Blood’ were nothing more than a twinkle in their creators’ eyes.
Ryan McPhun – Californian-born, New Zealand resident, and axis on which The Ruby Suns spin – is clearly an expert in the technical workings of electronica and the ins-and-outs of world music. Every possible synth sound is used to the point of overload on this record, with 80s new-wave chord sequences, afro and tropicalia beats, spiralling sustain, echoing electro vocals and close harmonies coming thick and fast to produce an eclectic, experimental and sometimes challenging sound. Like a kid with a new keyboard for Christmas, every button has been pushed and every effect has been used.
It is an undeniably uplifting and, at times, euphoric record with some genuine feel-good moments, such as stand out track and lead single ‘Cranberry’, which makes you feel like grabbing a Pina Colada, donning a Lei and limboing under the nearest low fence. ‘Closet Astrologer’ is an epic, spacious affair, replete with McPhun’s wavering, delicate vocals, echoing beats, wistful basslines and twinkling keys. What seems to be lacking, however, is a bit of raw emotion. This is a very introverted affair – it is strangely detached, and therefore left me cold.
The influence of such records as Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tango In The Night’ and Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds Of Love’ are constantly hovering over this album in such a commanding way that I found myself hankering for “Little Lies” and “Running Up That Hill” rather than “Closet Astrologer” and “Two Humans”. While these two tracks are good, they’re simply not as good as their original influences.
Whether it is because I heard this album after the likes of ‘Odd Blood’ and ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion’, or whether it ‘s just not as impressive an album, I was left feeling that ‘Fight Softly’, although interesting, stirring and genuinely enjoyable in places, lacked the innovation, the soul and the jolting originality of it’s contemporaries. Had this record come out a year ago, it might have been a very different story altogether.
Curse Of The Black Gold: exposing the exploitation of the Niger Delta and its people. All illustrations by Zöe Barker.
Despite being a fervent film fan, nurse I’ve never managed to blag my way into a film festival before, ed so was I excited by the prospect of attending this one? Well, see truth be told, not enormously – after all, it was taking place at the Shaw Theatre, a venue at which I once encountered the ‘comedy’ stylings of Simon Amstell. Hmmm. Nah, that may be a little harsh; although Amstell was rubbish, the rest of the comedy night I went to wasn’t terrible – it was in aid of a ‘free Tibet’ campaign after all.
Anyway, despite my misgivings, was I shaken and stirred by what I witnessed at the Artivist Film Festival? Well, on the one hand, yes; on the other, no, afraid not.
This film festival has been around for seven years, claiming to address human rights, environmental preservation and children and animal advocacy, as it strengthens the voice of socially conscious filmmakers or artists – ‘artivists’. It originated in the US – Los Angeles and New York – and crossed the Atlantic to London; this year it takes place in these three cities at different times in the year, but in the past has also visited Tokyo, Mexico City and Lisbon. The 2010 London leg took place on Friday evening and all-day Saturday and, taking in two shows on Saturday evening, I saw a short film followed by a feature film and another short followed by another feature.
The first short/ feature double bill focused on the exploitation of the Niger Delta by the multinational oil companies present there and the Nigerian government. The short, ‘Curse Of The Black Gold’ (directed by Julie Winokur), was an 8-minute blitzkrieg of information – visual, written and spoken – made up of the work of photojournalist Ed Kashi, statistics and opinions of Nigerian activists and poets. But, really, it was merely a prelude to the main course that was to come – the feature film ‘Sweet Crude ’ (directed by Sandy Cioffi).
I’ll be honest from the off, this film has left rather a profound effect on me. Documentary maker Cioffi has successfully managed not just to harness the story, excellently explained, of the 50-year exploitation of the Niger Delta, but also shows the viewer how, by making this docu, she effectively became an activist for the region’s people in their crusade – both peaceful and regrettably violent – against the corrupt Nigerian government and Chevron, Exxon and Shell, who together have blighted and continually try to force these people out of their ancestral homeland. Not just that, her film effectively and dramatically spells out how an offshoot of the Nigerian army, the JTF (Joint Task Force), has killed innocent people of the Niger Delta, and displays how the US TV network ABC has completely misinformed the public on the interests and actions of the armed Delta resistance group MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), bizarrely concluding on no evidence whatsoever that this group may be linked to Al-Quaeda.
For anybody with any interest in the corruption of the oil multinationals and our continuing dependence on oil-derived energy, Sweet Crude is essential viewing. Really. It’s deservedly won 14 awards at 33 film festivals. Sandy Cioffi herself was on hand at a Q&A after the showing and said that, in conjunction with the US organisation Justice In Nigeria Now! and the UK movement Oil Change International, she is working on securing a theatrical release for the film in the US. Indeed, if that comes about, perhaps a UK release may follow? And – I must admit, to my surprise – despite the complexity and deep-rooted nature of the problems in the Niger Delta and all her experiences in making her documentary, Cioffi is hopeful that some sort of satisfactory resolution can be reached. She claims this comes from her time spent making a documentary in Northern Ireland at the time when the Good Friday Agreement was struck – an agreement by local government that seemed impossible to reach for many years. One must admire her optimism.
Unfortunately, following the fireworks of the previous show, the second short/ feature double bill was certainly a let-down. It started off with ’Abe’ (directed by Khen Shalem), which featured a golden retriever dog’s experiences once his owner dies. Frankly, if it were supposed to emit sadness among the audience for its canine protagonist’s plight, it didn’t work for me. At the end, Abe ends up in kennels with another load of dogs, presumably ready to be picked up and adopted by another owner one day? Hardly the heavy ending I suspected I might see following the sunny, too-good-to-be true start. This was more a misfiring student film with high production values than the harsh reality check it could have been. Probably I’d have felt differently if I were more of a dog person?
And if the short disappointed, its partner feature film, the documentary ‘Ice Bears Of The Beaufort’ (directed Arthur C Smith III) really did. To be honest, I didn’t really get what the point of it was at all. It showed a year in the life of a group of polar bears in ‘the last balanced arctic ecosystem in Alaska’, which we’re informed at the start is under threat from oil drilling. But that’s all we got. There was no further hint at this growing threat, just 52 minutes – that’s right 52 minutes! – of polar bears rolling about and playing in the snow and arctic sea set to what sounded like a Jean Michel Jarre soundtrack. Quite simply, it’s an hour I’m never getting back. Oh, and besides me, there were only about six people who’d also bothered to see it. Maybe those who hadn’t come back from the previous films knew something we didn’t.
So, for me, the Artivist Film Festival was a mixed bag. However, for giving me the chance to educate myself on the situation in the Niger Delta through the documentary Sweet Crude, I must say it was also very worth my time going along – for, as the final line of said film asked about the region, what if the world paid attention before it was too late…?
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