‘Sound of 2011’: all a-swoon for Jamie Woon

After coming fourth in the BBC ‘Sound of 2011’ poll, the media buzz surrounding Woon is akin to a swarm of killer bees. As the son of folk singer Mae McKenna – who has performed backing vocals for just about every superstar you can name – it seems he was genetically engineered for pop stardom. Then, to make matters worse, he went to performing college. So, despite having the makings of a perfect Fame Academy contestant, how has Jamie Woon managed to play it cool and actually remain a fairly credible artist?

Woon attended the famous BRIT School, the starting point for acts like Amy Winehouse, Imogen Heap and Katy B. “It was good fun. It was only sixth form, and it was good to pretend I was a proper musician. I made good friends there. There’s a reputation for the school having a real jazz hands element. I was never into that. Everyone has their specialist fields. I used to do a lot of open tuning, pop stuff on the guitar.” So don’t hope to find any YouTube footage of him singing ‘New York, New York’ with a top hat and cane.

Although a product of a stage school, don’t get the wrong impression; he’s not making music because he didn’t make it into the cast of Glee. His style stems from a convergence of influences, “Radiohead were the first band I ever went truly mental for – oh, and Stevie Wonder.” Unsurprising, as it is his coupling of smooth, soulful vocals with resonant, artful production that encapsulates his style. Despite his electronic sound, Woon writes like any other singer-songwriter. “The guitar is my home instrument, it’s where I can bash chords out and stuff. I got into using vocal loops because singing is my first instrument. The loop means I can create this many-layered vocal sound live.” It’s these layers of vocals that give his music a haunting depth and texture, like the über-atmospheric single ‘In The Night Air’, with its breathy vox-synth and slide bass.

His connection to the London dubstep scene has led him to be classed, alongside fellow producer and ‘Sound of 2011’ nominee James Blake, as a ‘post-dubstep’ artist. “I hate the term. I know what it means, and it’s a sound I am into – but I have got a singer-songwriter background. I’ve always been interested in dubstep, ever since I discovered it four or five years ago. But I’m no DJ.” He is keen not to be pigeonholed and deservedly so. “I try not to jump on any band wagon. I try and hybridise things and make something honest.”

How easy it will be to avoid media labelling is a dubious question, as the ‘Sound of…’ poll has a history of tipping great artists then subsequently suffocating them under the weight of a media landslide. Woon’s opinions on the poll are mixed. “I think the poll is pretty healthy, there’s some cool music on there that I’m really into. But it can just be like overkill. It’s a great way of getting new stuff and new artists out there, but it’s a lot of exposure. I suppose it’s kind of a symbiotic relationship between the artists and the media. At the moment it’s just helping me get noticed – and that’s great.”

Having a famous folk star as a mother might have led him to lend his talents to traditional songs – such as his 2006 release ‘Wayfaring Stranger’ – but it definitely hasn’t made him more comfortable with the media as his public profile increases. “There are so many more pictures! I’m not a model! I don’t have any training in that! I knew what I was signing up for when I signed a record deal. It’s fun, I guess, though it might not always be that way. The most frustrating thing is having finished an album, but people can’t hear it yet!” Never fear Oxford, you’ll get the chance to hear Woon’s electro-soul opus at the Jericho Tavern on the 19th of February.

the ingestigator: Fire and Stone

Fire and Stone
George St

The idea behind Fire and Stone is that its hallmark pizzas are grouped into different geographical regions, each one representing a different city. So you can choose a ‘Peking’ pizza, topped with shredded aromatic duck, hoi sin sauce and cucumber ribbons, or go Down Under with a ‘Melbourne’, inexplicitly characterised by butternut squash, brie and pumpkin seeds. The result of this “concept” is a menu whose length and detail could see it added to the University’s English course, and whose content could be the itinerary of a classic Gap Yah.

After much deliberation I headed to the subcontinent with the ‘Bombay’, a pizza with a yogurt base, roast tandoori chicken, broccoli and mango chutney. I wanted to love it, I really did, but it didn’t quite live up to my expectations: the Indian curry and Italian basics didn’t meld. So whilst the chicken, yogurt and chutney were a natural fit, the four heads of broccoli sitting on each quarter looked embarrassed and the pizza base seemed to function as a sort of second plate.

There are alternatives: my roommate wasn’t tempted by the ‘world on a pizza’ novelty, and ordered a grilled goats cheese salad. Alas, she found it a little too salty, with generous amounts of pesto overpowering everything else in the salad.
So it must be said: the food here was underwhelming. Nonetheless, the experience was a fun one. Actually, I think this is the point of a place like Fire and Stone; whilst the execution of the cultural additions to its pizzas could be more sensitive, it is the outlandishness of its combinations that makes it different from other restaurants. Where they might stay tasteful, sensitively adding ingredients from around the world onto Italian classics, this place seems to want to stand out a little more.

It’s pleasant place to spend an evening, only a year old, and the restaurant has been done up tastefully. And perhaps most importantly, it’s good value for students- there’s a two for one meal deal until the end of the month, and on Thursdays every pizza is only £4, meaning our entire bill came to just over a fiver each. We left slightly disappointed with the food, but not with the evening overall. It’s not gourmet, but Fire and Stone is a cheap and easy way to have a literal taste of the world without leaving Oxford.

Price: Equivalent to 2 meals in Hall
Atmosphere: Large but friendly
Food: Take your Lonely Planet

Steph Vizard

Smile for the Camera!

As I stepped into the O3 gallery on a Friday night, I was welcomed by the buzzing warmth and babble that only a private view can bring. The spherical gallery was full of Oxford art-lovers clutching wine glasses, flicking through prints for sale and clustering around their favourite works.
Before I could join in with the chattering though, I had to get my head round the dizzyingly visual split between the two exhibiting artists – a rainbow burst of colour coupled with monochromatic drawings, the artwork was divided into two dramatically diverse styles. Currently holding a lively joint exhibition, local artists Emma Dougherty and Tim Steward are both fascinated with the historical icon which is the Radcliffe Camera, each taking it as their subject matter but tackling it with radically different results.

Dougherty’s distinctive work forms a playful, highly modern depiction using digital media to explore the space and veneration of the eighteenth century structure. Using found objects like pencils, playing cards, rulers and candles, several of her pieces form static assemblages, elegantly descending both sets of staircases within the exhibition and demanding our attention at every step. Even her digital drawing incorporates imagery from old Victorian advertisements, distinguishing between her use of virtual and physical processes. Also a keen animator, one of her videos was projected above the ground floor of the gallery, a short film that accumulates moving objects into the Rad Cam’s shape. It reminded me of the old Morph sketches from the children’s art programme, SMART, and was no doubt influenced by her time working as a primary school teacher.

Next to such colourful, tongue in cheek artworks, Steward’s black and white drawings form an imposing and unexpected contrast. An assertive mark-making and vibrant rendering of the Rad Cam’s form, he presents several stunning drawings in pastel and pigment on paper. Literally throwing the pigment at the paper at the last minute, he makes conventional drawings, seemingly obliterates them and then works back onto their surface, resulting in energetic, large-scale pieces smudged and dripping with material. The vivacious drawings also have an odd frailty about them – whilst depicting a classical icon in such a contemporary manner, Steward celebrates the mastery of “‘seeing’ and ‘drawing’”, using a traditional way of working to form some truly avant-garde sketches.

The artists themselves openly mirrored their own projects; both circulating with smiles on the opening night, Dougherty was dressed in a gorgeously vivid blue dress and orange necklace, whilst Steward played it cool in jeans and a shirt.

The complete contrast of Dougherty’s facetious experiments against Steward’s dark and striking drawings serves as a little unsettling at first. Bright polymer–clay models opposed to Steward’s impressive compositions cause nothing short of confusion, as your eye tries to choose between the quirky details in the assemblages and the masterful drawings in classic frames. Overall however, the passion for the beloved building at the heart of the University is clear in both sets of work. As the Mayor of Oxford told me, “This is modern art that is fun. It will appeal to other artists, primary school children and academics…there is something here for everyone living in Oxford.”

Here are two artists sharing a common fascination and working together to produce a dynamic, varied and curious show, and moreover, the gallery’s circular walls appropriately echo the curved architecture of the Rad Cam itself. It’s a must see if you want to be visually stunned, and enjoy traditional and modern art, or have ever admired the Rad Cam for all it signifies about life at Oxford.

Claire Davis

The Ox-idental Tourist: Parson’s Pleasure, The University Parks

An early twentieth-century a walker in the outskirts of Oxford would have been met with an unexpected sight. Not Tumnus the fawn,  or hairy hobbits, but something decidedly  less magical: bathers in the buff. What’s more, these were no ordinary folk… these were Oxford dons, themselves!

Though defunct since the nineties, Parson’s Pleasure was a popular male-only swimming spot at a quiet bend of the Cherwell in the University Parks—close to a small of an island named Mesopotamia. This bizarre business was at least all very carefully thought out. Female pedestrians on course to the sins of sight were encouraged to take a roundabout path, while those passing in punts were directed to shut their eyes or asked to get out because the men needed to take the punt over the rollers, far too dangerous a task to finesse with delicate ladies still on board. It wasn’t just men though doing the deed, though: women once had a nearby space called the Dame’s Delight to call their own—though by all accounts patrons of this particular watering hole maintained more rigorous codes of dress than the bevies of bathing Brasenose and Balliol men around the corner.

Of course, this being Oxford, there is the obligatory tale of a witty don, true or not who knows, to accompany the quirks of Parson’s Pleasure. Innocently taking in the waters one fine afternoon, a group of bathing tutors suddenly looked up to discover their idyll being disrupted by an encroaching punt— full either of mischievous students, says one account, or of camera-toting Japanese tourists yearning for their killer Kodak moment, says another. While most of the dons scrambled to shield their birthday gems from the measuring gazes of the interlopers, one calmly covered his head with a towel, remarking: ‘Well, gentlemen, my students know me by my face’!

Though the skinny-dippers are now a thing of the past in these parts, their legend lives on. In recent years, Parson’s Pleasure has inspired both the Oxford University Beer Appreciation Society’s Parson’s Pleasure Ale (1996), and a bell-ringing method called the Parson’s Pleasure Surprise Maximus, introduced at the Christ Church Cathedral in September 2010. The incompatibilities are fitting, for in its way Parson’s Pleasure encapsulates the bizarre union of high and low that is so often found beneath the surface at Oxford. Yes, it is a city of robes and gowns, but even here the most formal of attire and attitudes are sometimes shed very easily…

Alice Tsay

Grotesque? It’s not all grim…

Performance artists are nothing if not mysterious. Gentle prodding about the nature of their contribution to Oxford Art Movement’s ‘Sublime and Grotesque’ exhibition was taken with good humour but produced little reward: despite allusions to butchery and hot beverages, they’re keeping schtum. Their statement? “Through our immediate presence we bring to you a celebration of our shared physicality, a moment in which to revel in the body as a visceral artwork.” Our interest is piqued.

Whether this ‘viscera’ refers to the expected audience reaction – or the artists’ internal organs – remains to be seen. Having previewed a selection of OAM’s non-performance artwork set aside for their upcoming exhibition, neither would come as a surprise. If nothing else, you can expect the unexpected.
So what do we know? Well, ‘Sublime and Grotesque’ is founded on Victor Hugo’s famous quote: “As a means of contrast with the sublime, the grotesque is, in our view, the richest source that nature can offer”. Sometimes perverse, and sometimes inspired, the show’s collection is formed by work from throughout the undergraduate and graduate body of the University, with some contributions from Ruskin students. It’s been a challenge, but one OAM has relished: Dan Udy of the Ruskin spoke to us about the difficulties in organising an audience, and the necessity for art students to take advantage of these limited opportunities for performance work. “Oxford Art Movement provides an excellent vehicle for students to showcase performance artwork for an audience, which is so often hard to orchestrate or arrange”.

The selection of work previewed focuses on changing perceptions of beauty: think maimed life models and unhappy harlequins. As is perhaps inevitably the case with open-entry exhibitions, there is slight lack of cohesion across the works – and dubious technical skill in places – but what might be missing in execution is more than compensated-for with buckets of enthusiasm. The works comprise oils, acrylics, watercolours and ‘mixed media’, with very broad interpretations of an already capacious theme.

“We wanted a theme that would be easy to engage with, with breadth and depth”, said current OAM president Imogen Woodberry, the event’s principal organiser. “There’s something very attractive about the Romanticism element there, too. We set up ‘still lifes’ with sublime and grotesque elements at Oxford Art Movement over the last term as a springboard, although there’s a lot of work in the exhibition that has been done in people’s own time. Overall, we’re really pleased with the level of participation and enthusiasm everyone seems to have for the exhibition”.
The Movement itself is an entirely student-run organisation, which offers the respite of quiet cups of tea and mandarins on gloomy Saturday afternoons. A couple of pounds per session provides a bit of peace, unlimited art supplies and the opportunity to take a break from the ‘real work’ and engage with one’s creative side. People from across the University trickle in and out over the course of the afternoon, stopping for a couple of hours to make birthday cards, produce small-scale masterpieces or grapple with Woodberry’s inventive still lifes.

Christ Church’s art room, the venue, is perhaps its best-kept secret: a treasure-trove of supplies, resources, books and magazines and even a printing press. It’s not immediately easy to find – and does require doing battle with a bevy of be-camera-ed Saturday afternoon tourists – but well worth the effort.
Peter Rhoades, art tutor at the host college, supports the scheme, allowing access to the room, and organising opportunities for students across the University to be involved with his life drawing classes. This contribution in particular has filtered into the work for exhibition, with a particularly memorable pair of breasts cropping up in a number of different people’s works. Perhaps one of the nicest things about the Movement is its more wandering, aimless quality – the standard of the work is unassessed, doesn’t count for anything, and is unlikely to garner CV points: Oxford Art Movement is, at the end of the day, art for art’s sake.

So, is their new exhibition worth a punt? From the tantalising hints we saw, the answer is yes. While undeniably patchy in places, there is also some very strong work, on an interesting and thought-provoking theme. If nothing else, we’ll be there to see that mysterious ‘shared physicality’ for ourselves – and for the champagne of course.

The Sublime and Grotesque is on 1st February, from 19:30., Christ Church Gallery, entry £3.

Natasha Frost

Free from twee, thankfully

The Decemberists are, to many of their fans, a band with a score to settle. Their 2005 breakthrough album, Picaresque, introduced us to their unique reconciliation of traditional ‘storytelling’ elements with an ostentatious yet infectious folk-rock sound. The liner notes credited a ‘French translator’; they’re named after a nineteenth-century Russian uprising, and yet they still didn’t seem that twee.

That is, until 2009 and the release of ‘prog-folk-opera’, Hazards of Love, with its unique reconciliation of medieval balladry with utter bollocks. It sounded like an album produced by five people who’d met on World of Warcraft.

It seems – thankfully – that they’ve got the ‘prog’ out of their system. The King is Dead sees a return to elegant, rootsy lyricism aside looping minor progressions and the drone of the accordion. There is no concept to the album; it is not an alternate, epic ode to The Smiths’ classic song (a fear many no doubt shared).

Indeed, the influences no longer seem so engrained within English musical traditions; there is a distinct country-rock, ‘Americana’ sound that suggests influences firmly on their own side of the Atlantic. The most overt of these influences comes from R.E.M, with Peter Buck in fact appearing as guest guitarist on three tracks. The allusions to their sound are clear; songs such as ‘January Hymn’ and ‘Dear Avery’ start with reserved, arpeggiated-progressions which embellish into multi-layered refrains.

Standout tracks such as opening ‘Don’t Carry It All’ tread a line between the effusive and subtly emotive, the lyrical hook “We are all our hands and holders/Beneath this bold and brilliant sun” typifying the mournful, simple and gently pervasive style that frontman Colin Meloy has made his own. Across the album as a whole the band manage to present their stylistic influence without ever becoming a pastiche.

Songs such as ‘All Arise!’ may on first listen present themselves as a break from morose lyricism, but come second, third and fourth play the same familiar and heartening angst lurks beneath the surface.

In general, this album rewards repeat playing in the way its predecessor did not. Gone are the baroque, pseudo pretensions; back is the understated, beautiful and cathartic core. Without wishing to tempt fate, it seems ‘prog’ was just a phase they went through…

Fast as lightning, sharp as a ninja!

The Go! Team’s front-woman and all-round superstar Ninja is still her high-kicking, larger-than-life on-stage self – even over the phone. I can tell from the first “HELLO!” that the on-stage antics are no more than an amplification of a natural born fun lover.

When I ask about her famous moves, Ninja is quick to stress that though they might sometimes try and pre-choreograph things: “It always just falls apart in the moment. I just go with the music…I just dance how I would in my bedroom, except I live in a really big house, and you’re all in there!”

Ninja joined The Go! Team after answering an internet advertisement for an old-school female rap-artist. At that point, the band was the purely instrumental project of Ian Parton, the man behind the samples, and he was later joined by Chi Fukami Taylor, Kaori Tsuchida, Jamie Bell, Sam Dook – and, of course, Ninja herself.

“The Go! Team was, and still is, about the music that Ian loves. We’re not one of those bands who sit around a camp fire with an acoustic guitar…”. Ninja goes on to describe the “tedious process” that involves Ian listening to “hours, no days” of “dusty old records”, finding the perfect little snippets of obscure tracks to form layers with the live instrumentation: “we never wanted to ride off the fame of one massive track”. It has, since the beginning, been Ninja’s job to make “proper songs” out of this melting pot of creativity.

Speaking of things to come, we discuss The Go! Team’s forthcoming single, ‘Buy Nothing Day’ (released here on 24th January), a collaboration with indie It-girl of the moment, Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino. What made the band choose to work with the first lady of the stoner-rockers?
“We actually just found Beth’s music on the Internet. We wrote and recorded the song ages ago…and then Best Coast totally blew up. I reckon Pitchfork were stalking us…they knew that what we were listening to was cool!”

It’s certainly a different sound to the hyperactive, genre-bending party that the band bounded onto the scene with on 2004’s Thunder, Lightening, Strike, and I ask Ninja if this softer side to the band is a sign of things to come on new record Rolling Blackouts, due on the 31st of this month.
“There is definitely more use of contrast, of light and shade on this album – ‘Buy Nothing Day’ is definitely part of that lighter side. It’s not completely what people will expect from us.”

However, she is quick to stress that Rolling Blackouts will in no way be a complete departure from “what people know us for.” Taster single, ‘Tornado’, which was released last year, is a barn-stormer of big horns, even bigger beats and a military marching feel, a reminder that:  “The Go! Team are BACK.”

Ninja tells me how excited she is to tour the new record: “Last year we played over in Moscow. I was scared absolutely every step of the journey, and when I finally arrived, I didn’t feel much better.” Why the uneasiness? I can’t imagine Ninja feeling anxious anywhere.

“People were literally turning their heads to look at me in the street. I definitely didn’t see any other black faces.” The nerves about how the band would be received continued to build, until the gig turned out to be one of the best, but most bizarre, sets the band have ever played. The gig was being held in the ruins of an abandoned industrial warehouse, with the military taking the place of crowd security.

With the tour beginning in a matter of weeks, Ninja has hatched a plan to both “stop her from going mad” on the road, and to make sure that she can record any other experiences as “mental” as her time in Moscow. Her blog, littlebrownninja.com, will be her distraction over the coming months. If the content is anything like as entertaining as Ninja herself, it’ll be “stuff” worth reading.

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