Sonic Youth- The Eternal (2009)

Sonic Youth are always a tough band to review. They are one of the most consistent and inventive forces in rock music- this much we know. While their last album, Rather Ripped, was a goldmine of understated jangle-pop, bluesy rock and claustrophobic lethargy, there is always that creeping, nagging feeling (as there is with any Sonic Youth album) that it pales next to 1989’s masterpiece, Daydream Nation.

The group has evolved immeasurably since Daydream Nation, learning and unlearning their craft, rebuilding from the ground up their own art-damaged songforms and put together some truly brilliant records, but Daydream still manages to tower over all of them. The Eternal is not Daydream Nation.

The Eternal is out for blood. The Sister-esque ferocity that drives Sacred Trickster and Anti-Orgasm draws battlelines at the record’s opening. Kim Gordon’s vocals have matured infinitely since Dirty, maintaining that record’s aggression but with a tunefulness learned and perfected on Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped. The playful husband-wife duet on Anti-Orgasm is powerfully theatrical, equal parts gender war and united political front (it makes you wonder whether Kim and Thurston actually finish eachother’s sentences in ordinary conversation).

The Eternal rocks hard and steady. It is a consistent, surprising, twisting and moving force of nature. More so than any of their works since 1994’s due-for-a-critical-reassessment-any-day-now Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, it is considered and deliberate. This approach is a double-edged sword- the widescreen instant-classic Antenna is a songwriting peak for the band, whereas a more flexible approach would have benefited the plodding and uncharismatic Leaky Lifeboat.

As on every album, Lee Ranaldo’s tracks will make you crumble. Lyrically and musically, Walking Blue and What We Now are minor masterpieces- unlike previous efforts, however, it seems as if the noise rebel is more willing to play ball and his songs fit in quite smoothly with the rest of the band’s groove. A groove enhanced by the addition of ex-pavement Bassist Mark Ibold to the line up- every bassline on on this album is a 1AM, alcohol-soaked punch in the gut.

The Eternal is not Daydream Nation. The Eternal is deep-fried space-gold in its own right.


District 9 (2009)

As a genre, science fiction seems to cop a lot of flack. Time and time again, the key point that many critics seem to miss is that Star Wars isn’t science fiction. Star Trek hasn’t been science fiction for over a quarter of a century. Not in the real sense, anyway. There is a real difference between an action film featuring space ships and aliens, and a speculative, allegorical or conceptual exploration of a hypothetical. District 9 begins as the latter, only sadly falling into the former in it’s final third.

Like many works in the genre, District 9 takes humanity’s capacity to deal with the unknown and takes it to its breaking point. The choice of South Africa as the setting for this morality tale is certainly problematic- on the face of it, it’s a fairly obvious allegory for apartheid; deeper than that it can be seen as clumsily engaging with the nation’s modern-day political realities.

The film’s form is baffling. A recurring mockumentary motif is only intermittently convincing (the choice to shoot this on 35mm film rather than a television documentary standard video format is a little distracting), and seems to be partially abandoned when the plot dictates (especially in scenes that feature only alien characters). Yet these scenes that break from the documentary format are shot in the same hand-held style- while this is probably intended to give the film a single, cohesive visual style it feels uneven. The CGI is more than adequate, and inspired art direction in the alien ghetto helps in building a convincing world for these creatures to inhabit.

The script is at times very funny, at others poignant and disturbing, at others sketchy and clichéd. Performances are mostly excellent. Sharlto Copley makes Wikus van der Merwe a far more sympathetic character than he probably deserves to be on paper and Venessa Haywood does a good job in playing the wife, turning what could have been a clichéd portrayal of divided loyalties into something much more human and convincing.

The fawning that this film has received from certain quarters is only partially deserved- it is certainly a daring piece of fiction when stood up against such mind-numbing slush as Terminator 4 and Transformers 2, but it only makes things more disappointing with film’s reversion to action movie clichés towards the end.

While far from perfect, or even great, District 9 is definitely worth seeing- if only to let the studios know that there is a place for this sort of thing in mainstream cinema.