Thursday, December 12, 2019

Rise and shine

A mouthwatering addition to the festival calendar in 2020 is Wide Awake, a one-day event taking place in London's Brockwell Park in early June. Presumably named after the marvellous Parquet Courts song/album, and brought to us by the founders of Field Day, it seems to be very much in the same vein as the extremely good value but sadly shortlived 1-2-3-4 Festival that I had the good fortune to go to in 2010 and 2012 , both in terms of eminently affordable ticket prices and line-up. The bill already features black midi, Crack Cloud, Daniel Avery and Dream Wife, with more to be announced. It's just a real shame that it's on a Friday rather than a weekend.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Drum machine

Man Forever is John Colpitts, better known as Kid Millions: drummer extraordinaire with Oneida and Ex Models, and collaborator with everyone from Boredoms to Black Mountain and Spiritualized's Jason Pierce. A bookish figure offstage, he transforms into an octopoid superhuman behind his kit. A good job, too, given that Oneida's legendary Ocropolis performances lasted for ten hours.

Man Forever's last LP, 2017's Play What They Want, was ironically titled - the music it contained wasn't in thrall to anyone's preconceptions or constrained by any kind of convention. Neither was it consciously designed, Colpitt instead allowing himself to be led wherever the compositions took him. "I didn't want it to be dismissed offhand with something like, 'Oh yeah, this is Kid Millions messing around with drums'", he told one interviewer. "I really wanted it to be surprising."

Play What They Want WAS Kid Millions messing around with drums (to great effect, it should be added), but it was certainly also surprising: a heady cocktail whose ingredients included freeform piano, choral passages, playful patterns and hypnotic non-Western rhythms and chimes, drawing on contemporary classical and avant-garde influences that took it way beyond standard rock tropes.

Contributors to the album included Laurie Anderson, Yo La Tengo and Trans Am's Phil Manley. Don't expect any of them to pitch up onstage in the Moon tomorrow night, but do go along with an open mind.

(An edited version of this preview appeared on the Buzz website.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

In the national interest

Another weekday evening, another opportunity to take a few short steps from my office and enjoy a stimulating, thought-provoking event for free.

Last week it was Assuming Gender's Christmas lecture, which saw historian Justin Bengry of Goldsmiths talking about queer books and the early twentieth-century publishing industry - the meat of the first chapter of his forthcoming book on the emergence of the pink pound.

This week it was an event entitled The Role Of Arts And Culture In Developing Wales' International Profile, organised by the Learned Society of Wales. David Anderson, Director General of the National Museum Wales, gave the main presentation and was then part of a panel featuring representatives from the British Council Wales (Rebecca Gould) and the worlds of television (Wildflame's Llinos Griffin-Williams), publishing (Helgard Krause, Chief Executive of the Books Council of Wales) and literature (poet and professor Mererid Hopwood).

Given all the talk of collaboration/co-creation, distinctive identity, the value of the Welsh language, building bridges and showcasing Wales for the wider world, it was disappointing not to have someone from the music industry on stage. Thankfully, though, Huw Stephens was on hand in the audience to point out that Welsh musicians like Manic Street Preachers and Super Furry Animals arguably do more than those in other art forms - or indeed any arts strategist - in performing a (perhaps inadvertently) ambassadorial role promoting the country far beyond its borders. After all, Gruff Rhys inspires people to take up learning the language pretty much single-handedly.

Anyway, this seems like an opportune moment to repeat my recommendation of Stephens' film Anorac, which takes the temperature of the contemporary Welsh music scene and stresses how important it is that the current crop go further than merely preaching to the converted.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Sold down the river stream

I'm glad I'm not alone in finding it very odd that in recent days music fans have been using social media to tell artists they love how many times they've streamed songs.

Take ex-Pavement guitarist Spiral Stairs, for instance, who tweeted: "why am I getting everyone's spotify decade bullshit in my feed everyday? don't you realize they don't pay fuck all to the bands you love?" Fucked Up opted for a sarcastic response: "thanks to everyone who listened to our music on spotify this year and made us poor".

Kid Congo Powers, meanwhile, revealed the results of a little experiment he carried out: "my favourite spotty-fy artist of the decade was ME because i spent seven of those ten years playing my own songs (with sound off) to see if i could make more than 5 bucks.. i made less than that... grand times!"

Boasting to bands about the extent of your Spotify usage seems in bizarrely poor taste. As this recent BBC interview with music industry bigwig Jeremy Lascelles underlined, illegal downloading prompted "total and utter panic", with the big labels in danger of being wiped out, but help was at hand in the nick of time: "The record industry was incapable of thinking its way out of the trouble, and then music streaming just fell like a gift from the gods." Streaming may have saved the industry from extinction, but what Lascelles euphemistically referred to as "a different business model" is very evidently not working for artists.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

The Eyes have it

The second Northern Eye International Photography Festival took place in Colwyn Bay this autumn, using everything from council offices to a former greengrocer's shop as exhibition spaces. Lin Cummins managed to take in much of a diverse programme and her report for Wales Arts Review has further convinced me that I really must try to get over to Aberystwyth for the festival's big sister next year.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Know Your Enemy

"Despite LP1's effortful attempts to cast Payne as a sexual piranha, the 26-year-old generally comes off as an uptight scold. ... Such are the accidental highs of an album empty of intentional humour, heart, or anything much human at all beyond base carnality. ... Perhaps this leg-crossing horror show is another sign of Payne's prudence: LP1 is a terrible pop album, but very effective contraception."

The Guardian's Laura Snapes reviews former One Direction man Liam Payne's new solo album. The lyrics she quotes are beyond-painful accidental Partridgisms that you could imagine Alan saying to Jill or Sonja.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Dark matter

Three days on from the Blanck Mass gig at Clwb, I'm still not fully recovered - and I'm not just talking about the consequences of excessive consumption of Tiny Rebel's finest brews. Here's my Buzz write-up of an evening that began with a crash course in catty insults from a pair of drag queens and ended with staring into the abyss.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

"Document it before it's too late"

With a selection of images from his self-published book A Different Country being reprinted in South Wales In The 1970s, a new title in the Cafe Royal Books series, I spoke to Robin Weaver about how he got started, why he turned his back on documentary photography (and why he's now returning to it) and what he makes of the pictures four decades on.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Journey's end

Following the closure and demolition of Gwdihw, more depressing news for the local music scene: the Cardiff Transport Club is to shut down permanently on New Year's Eve.

The venue only threw open its doors to bands in April 2017 - at a time when Womanby Street was under serious threat - but one of the first shows it hosted saw Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard (then just Buzzard) make their live debut alongside Boy Azooga, who went on to film the video for 'Loner Boogie' there, with Kliph Scurlock playing the part of heckling punter.

I wasn't there for that, sadly - but I did see Sacred Paws play there in September 2017 as part of Swn (their second Cardiff show of that year) and then Sweet Baboo three months later.

The place has a no-frills working men's club vibe perfect for small-scale gigs, which were clearly seen as a means of generating revenue and keeping the struggling venue afloat - so it's a real shame to learn that it's going under.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Black magic

Sunn O))): "the most influential metal group of the decade"? Nah, that would be Black Sabbath - as it would be for any decade.

Facetious pedantry aside, in this article for the Guardian John Doran does genuinely make a good case for what might initially seem a rather bold and contentious claim. "Like the giant celestial body they share a name with homophonically", he writes, "they exert a massive amount of gravity on the culture that surrounds them, drawing more into their orbit while radiating giant waves of creative energy back outwards." What is striking is that that impact extends far beyond what might be conventionally considered as the outer limits of metal - Doran refers to SWSL favourites Blanck Mass and Marissa Nadler as well as The Bug and Anna von Hausswolff as artists whose work carries Sunn O)))'s imprint, even if only subconsciously, and also cites the soundtrack compositions of Nick Cave, Warren Ellis and Geoff Barrow.

Doran's argument is that since the band emerged in the late 90s it's culture that has changed, partially through their influence. While I don't really buy the claim that "metal has, for the most part, always been modernist and avant garde" (as Doran himself admits, throughout its history it's been associated with regressive and reactionary attitudes), it's certainly true that it is now recognised as "a valid art form" in the right hands - no longer the laughable, childish preserve of nerds.

Seeking to identify the secret of Sunn O)))'s appeal, though, Doran is less convincing, suggesting that listening to them is a transcendental experience not dissimilar to that enjoyed through yoga or meditation. And I wish there was some acknowledgement among Sunn O))) acolytes that the monks' habits, the copious quantities of dry ice and the raised claw-hands threaten to push the live shows from drama into pantomime. Metal has always had an element of excess and ridiculousness about it - and Sunn O))) are no different, even if po-faced beardstrokers refuse to recognise it.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Out of this world

It's worth remembering that Canton boasts not one but two arts centres. Chapter inevitably garners the most attention for its contribution to the artistic and cultural life of the area and the city as a whole, but Llanover Hall is also a real asset to the local community. While the former is more of a showcase for the work of professionals, the latter is where amateurs go to try things out and get their hands dirty.

Given that Llanover Hall was founded in 1969, a pop-up screening of Apollo 11 to mark its fiftieth birthday made perfect sense. I'll admit to going along more out of support of the venue - but I came away open-mouthed at the film.

Beautifully edited using footage shot at the time, and without any obtrusive/overbearing narration, Apollo 11 tells the story of the first successful manned mission to the moon, from the moment the rocket trundled along to the launch platform to the moment the astronauts - Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins - touched down back on Earth.

Even for someone well versed in the history and detail of the mission, I suspect that the film would hold plenty of interest - and for someone who wasn't, it was an eye-opening experience. I had no idea, for instance, that the trio were kept in quarantine for 18 days after arriving home, due to paranoia that they might have brought hitherto unknown and deadly diseases or germs back with them. The way they ignored the warning lights on lunar descent was much like the way you might casually ignore an unfamiliar warning light on your car dashboard. Armstrong's reticence to step off the ladder and subsequent detailed description of the moon's fine-grained surface, meanwhile, made more sense in light of the theory that it would be akin to quicksand (hence the landing module's large flat feet).

Most remarkable, of course - even more so than the astronauts' self-discipline in not swearing - was the magnitude of the feat itself, achieved with less computer processing power than each of us now routinely carries around in our pockets. Had there been any tiny fault or minute miscalculation - and let's remember the problem with a valve immediately before take-off and the insane difficulty of the docking manoeuvre - and they would have been totally screwed. To put that level of trust in others takes serious guts.

For me, the real hero of the mission was Michael Collins. Left circling the moon like a taxi driver with the engine running, waiting (hoping) for his companions to get back from the surface and dock safely, he went out of radio contact and into the most terrifyingly complete solitude imaginable every time he passed behind the moon. Having the psychological strength to deal with that is incredible.

Much like 'The Other Side', Public Service Broadcasting's masterful track about the Apollo 8 mission, Apollo 11 succeeds in creating and sustaining dramatic tension despite having a basic "plot" that everyone knows.

Friday, November 29, 2019

The price isn't right

What better time to tour an album inspired by the dangerous excesses of capitalist consumption than in the run-up to Christmas? By way of a preview for the Blanck Mass show at Clwb Ifor Bach on Tuesday, I asked Benjamin John Power about the LP in question (Animated Violence Mild): its intensity, its subject matter and how it translates live.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Damage limitation?

To the list of those musicians who lost material in the devastating 2008 fire at Universal Music Group's Building 6197 we can now add Beck. Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, he said that the flames "probably" destroyed a large quantity of unreleased material, depriving us of (among other things) an LP of Hank Williams covers, a 1995 album-length collaboration with Jon Spencer and a pre-Odelay indie-rock record "that sounds like a Pavement, Sebadoh kind of thing".

Aside from the intriguing list of destroyed recordings, what was most striking was that use of the word "probably" - explained by the fact that his management "still won't tell me what was lost". He suggested - perhaps rather charitably - that this might be because "they can't bear to break the news".

Beck has subsequently issued a classic forced-smile gun-to-the-head statement on Instagram: "I wanted to clarify some out-of-context quotes regarding the Universal archives fire. Since the time of that interview we have found out that my losses in the fire were minimal. Another point I want to clarify: I have had a wonderful and very close relationship with my management for 25 years through to working on my current album. x" No elaboration on what survived and what was actually lost - just that the losses were minimal. A claim that is remarkably similar to UMG's own party line...

Quote of the day

"All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light. There was a time when I got hot under the collar if the critics said I had nothing new to say. Now I realise that they had a point. My field is the self-evident. Everything I say is obvious, although I like to think that some of the obvious things I have said were not so obvious until I said them."

One thing that now seems obvious is that I should read some of the late Clive James' books. I only really know him as the wry voice on late-night TV that managed to attract and hold the interest of even my dad - someone not normally drawn to critical commentary on culture and the arts.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Going underground

Most people travelling on the Tube try to avoid all eye contact with their fellow passengers, preferring to ignore or block out their immediate surroundings. In the 1970s, though, photographer Mike Goldwater did the exact opposite: traversing the capital's subterranean network with a camera and an inquisitive eye that enabled him to capture fleeting moments in the lives of complete strangers.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Party hard

Back in 2007, I  saw !!! twice on two different continents: first hosting a woodland rave in the Glade on the Saturday night at Glastonbury, shortly before The Stooges hit the Other Stage; and then bringing the Toronto Opera House to life four months later. It gave me great pleasure to report that, more than a decade on, they're still peerless party-starters - as Wednesday's appearance at Clwb proved.

Ignore the bit about Nic Offer's natty suit - we were stationed too far back in the crowd, unwisely, to realise that he was actually wearing shorts. It was either that or we were simply dazzled by Meah Pace's dress.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Giving credit where it's due

If you're a fan of Deafheaven, you should be aware that they stole Alcest's thunder, pretty much literally. I wasn't aware, but thanks to a recent reviewing assignment for Buzz, I now am.

Also featuring in the monthly release round-up are new offerings from Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Tindersticks, Hawkwind, DJ Shadow, Jeff Lynne's ELO and Vetiver, plus Zone Rouge from locals Right Hand Left Hand (which I really must hear) and Bad Wiring by Jeffrey Lewis & The Voltage (the quality of which I can happily vouch for, having heard them run through several of the songs at Clwb towards the end of September).

Saturday, November 23, 2019

A sense of entitlement

Ever since a memorable encounter with The Dresden Dolls at Glastonbury in 2005, I've kept half an eye on Amanda Palmer's career. Regardless of what I or anyone else think of her, though, it's fair to say that she's seriously embarrassed herself (at best) in the last few days.

It started with her very public complaint that the Guardian had refused to cover her new album and tour. She later claimed that her point was more about how she responded by exploring alternatives to mainstream media coverage - but Guardian music editor Ben Beaumont-Thomas and his deputy Laura Snapes weren't about to take false talk of a ban lying down. Snapes subsequently revealed her previous interactions and exchanges with Palmer, describing the musician's behaviour as harassment.

Under fire from all sides, Palmer tried to backtrack, expressing her unconditional love of the Guardian and respect for music journalists in general and asking her diehard devotees not to pile on Snapes. But Snapes was, rightly, having none of it - no doubt riled by being gaslighted by Palmer's claim that "I understand she felt harassed and targeted". She criticised Palmer for attempting "to take the moral high ground", lamented "her total lack of compunction or understanding" and, most damningly, made the following acid observation: "It is v interesting how the language of 'accountability' and 'growth' and 'learning' has become so mainstream and sort of ... unimpeachable that charlatans routinely use it to excuse their very obvious fuckups, and get away with it."

Let's unpick it all, shall we?

For a start, "harassment" might be a strong word - but make no mistake, it's one that's Snapes' prerogative to use in reference to behaviour that is at very least weird and creepy.

Second, musicians who claim that there's some sort of media vendetta against them only succeed in making themselves look like paranoid brats. As Snapes and Beaumont-Thomas patiently explained, there were very good reasons why Palmer's endeavours weren't covered - which included the fact that the paper had given her plenty of coverage in the past. (Take this Jon Ronson feature from 2013, for instance, the title of which asks pointedly "visionary or egotist?") There are all sorts of pressures and factors involved, and anyone who moans about not being featured comes across as pathetically self-entitled.

Palmer dug herself an even bigger hole by denying that she expected coverage and yet arguing that the paper, given its political leanings, should really be giving exposure to the efforts of a "known feminist". This provoked even more ire and criticism (not least because harassing a woman in the name of feminism is not a good look) - and when she complained about the insinuation that "my entire album and tour is a blatantly cynical attempt at leveraging feminism and progressive politics for money", many people mockingly noted that she might finally have arrived at a modicum of self-awareness.

Perhaps most bizarre is Palmer's claim that paying a freelance journalist and photographer to produce a long-form puff piece about her tour is a major history-making media innovation rather than merely a self-aggrandising PR exercise. This might be an extreme example, but in fairness she isn't the only musician apparently unable to distinguish between genuine journalism and PR. If you want to guarantee positive promotion of your new album, just take out an advert.

Palmer has previous form, for thinking it was acceptable to raise over $1 million through crowdfunding and then offer to pay her musicians in beer and hugs. It remains to be seen whether those she's alienated within her own fanbase will forgive her for this latest episode.

Know Your Enemy

"I've voted only once in my life, more than forty years ago, being convinced that leaders are mostly of benefit to no one save themselves. That said, some leaders are so unbelievably malevolent and catastrophic that they must be strenuously opposed by any means available. Put simply, I do not believe that four more years of these rapacious, smirking right-wing parasites will leave us with a culture, a society, or an environment in which we have the luxury of even imagining alternatives. ... If my work has meant anything to you over the years, if the way that modern life is going makes you fear for all the things you value, then please get out there on polling day and make your voice heard with a vote against this heartless trampling of everybody's safety, dignity and dreams."

It's a measure of just how bad the Tories are that they've driven lifelong anarchist Alan Moore to not only vote himself but plead that others do likewise.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Stay-at-home dads

Coldplay's decision not to tour new LP Everyday Life for environmental reasons was an open goal for jokes (for what it's worth, probably my favourite response was from Memorial Device: "Another thing we have Greta Thunberg to thank for") - but let's give credit where it's due.

Tours for mega-bands like Chris Martin's crew are enormous operations, with carbon footprints to match - but the decision not to criss-cross the globe in support of a new album is certainly not one to be taken lightly, given the huge revenues that such tours can reap. Their last jaunt made $523m - so to pass up the chance of another bumper pay day shows that they're really putting their money where their mouth is.

Martin has said that their aim is to be more than merely carbon neutral: they're taking time out "to work out how our tour can not only be sustainable [but] how it can be actively beneficial" - an admirable ambition. In the meantime, it's unfortunate that fans will be denied the opportunity to see them in the flesh, but they are broadcasting a couple of gigs in Jordan free on YouTube. Live streaming may be the answer - not only for bands of Coldplay's stature, but also smaller acts for whom the cost of international or even national touring is prohibitively expensive.

Split decision

There was always going to be more to come about Janet Weiss' exit from Sleater-Kinney, and, for those of us who are fans of all involved, it was always going to be painful to hear and reflect badly on someone.

When the news broke, Weiss' statement was short and to the point: "The band is heading in a new direction. ... It is time for me to move on." Now, in an interview with a drumming podcast, she's explained the decision to leave in more detail: "The roles changed within the band, and they told me the roles changed. I said, 'Am I just the drummer now?' They said yes. And I said, 'Can you tell me if I am still a creative equal in the band?' And they said no. So, I left." 

In defence of Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker, they were at least honest with Weiss, and the three of them did attempt to work through the issues with a counsellor (as, apparently, they did back in 1998). But you can't blame Weiss for being hurt and deciding to walk away after being told that she was no longer an integral part of a band to which she'd given much of her life. As she said, "How can we be fighting for equality and not have it in our band; it just became a disconnect."

If Brownstein and Tucker were so keen to make a break and set off on a new tack, then could they not have formed a side project or retired the Sleater-Kinney name rather than treating Weiss so badly?

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Know Your Enemy

"We were also listening to Yeezus by Kanye West a lot at the time, strangely enough... This sordid, hyper-narcissistic content I found to be more interesting than this flag-waving, faux-left, political nonsense that most of these so-called exciting, up-and-coming guitar bands have been putting out these days."

I've noted before that Fat White Family can always be relied upon to give good interview, and they've done so again in conversation with new Buzz editor Sam Pryce, Lias Saoudi here taking another thinly veiled swipe at Idles.

The comments appear in Pryce's preview of the band's Tramshed gig next Wednesday. It's one I'm going to have to sit out, unfortunately - something made all the worse by the fact that hot tips Working Men's Club will be in support.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Trust issues

I think we may have reached Peak Tory: Boris Johnson blathering on in the leaders' debate about the importance of trust and truthfulness at the exact same time as one of their official Twitter accounts, CCHQPress, had disguised itself as an impartial fact-checking site and was busy spreading lies about Labour. You really couldn't make it up.

With the dissemination of fake news via social media and strategies used to deceive and manipulate voters at the expense of democracy a major and very genuine contemporary concern, the stunt was staggeringly crass, unethical and irresponsible.

It's a surprise that even the Tories would stoop so low - but, predictably enough, they've subsequently issued the usual airy dismissals and paper-thin justifications, with James Cleverley claiming he was "absolutely comfortable" with it all and Dominic Raab insisting that no one could have been fooled and "no one gives a toss about social media cut and thrust". Thousands if not millions of people profoundly disagree.

More depressing, arguably, is Twitter's response: "Any further attempts to mislead people by editing verified profile information - in a manner seen during the UK election debate - will result in decisive corrective action." In other words, nothing more than a light tap on the wrist for cynical abuse of the platform. The Tories' media strategists will be slapping each other on the back considerably harder.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Access all areas

As was pointed out in a viral tweet recently, the Tories have mocked Labour for their election pledge to ensure free superfast broadband for all (with Boris Johnson leading the attack, branding it "a crazed communist scheme") - and yet it's the Tories who've insisted that (for instance) people have to apply for Universal Credit online.

My own recent experience illustrates the problem: it should have been £14 to renew my photo driving licence online, but, due to an unspecified "glitch in the system" (in other words, through no fault of my own), my options were to apply by post (£17) or in person at the post office (£21.50).

The DVLA would no doubt attempt to justify the price differential by referring vaguely to "administrative costs", but the fact is that those who don't have easy access to the internet shouldn't find themselves victims of discrimination. It's ludicrous that those with the least are routinely forced to pay the most.

Labour's promise is a lot less trivial than it might at first seem.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Pier review

Today's walk along Penarth seafront under glowering skies would have been enjoyable enough even if it hadn't also presented the opportunity to drop in on Nick Treharne's Penarth People exhibition in the pier pavilion.

It's the perfect venue for Treharne's black-and-white portraits of the local residents - some Penarth born and raised but many attracted to the town from elsewhere, whether by the Victorian architecture, the sea air or something else.

The pictures exude warmth, affection and humour, and a connection between photographer and subjects that is as close as between subjects and place. You get a real sense of the characters of those featured in the images, who are also given the opportunity to "speak" for themselves in the captions beneath.

Thanks to Glenn Edwards for alerting me to the existence of the exhibition, which runs until the end of the month.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Mick's picks

David Bennum might insist that he's not being contrary, but maintaining that Simply Red's Stars is in fact "a near-flawless masterpiece" is pretty much Peak Quietus. There is also a rich irony in Bennum approvingly quoting Mick Hucknall's comment about "The Carpenters/ABBA syndrome", which involves "sneering at the sheer popularity of something" - that's a charge that could be levelled at many a Quietus writer, much as I generally love the site. And in any case, the critical sneering at Simply Red isn't down to the fact that they're popular - it's down to the fact that they're shit.

Personally speaking, then, the prospect of reading about Mick's picks for the Quietus' Baker's Dozen feature was about as appealing as, ooh, learning how Lighthouse Family made 'Lifted' - but his selection actually turns out to be quite decent, if very safe, in that it's a list of solid-gold classics. David Bowie, Miles Davis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan all feature, as do The Stooges with Fun House - with Hucknall unsurprisingly unable to resist mentioning his presence at the Sex Pistols' fabled gig at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Dirty old towns

Places can change character, just as people can. Transformed by modernising influences including capital investment and immigration, for instance, modern-day Vancouver is very different to the gritty, working-class port city shot by photographer Greg Girard in the 1970s.

Such urban transformations have been particularly rapid in Asia. Little wonder, then, that Girard has based himself there for the last few decades, capturing the realities of ordinary working-class life in Hong Kong, Hanoi and Tokyo.

His series on Kowloon Walled City is especially eye-opening, the images conveying not only the sights but also the sounds and smells of an extraordinary place - a grim, dank warren of dark tunnels and shoebox apartments from which the residents can only dream of escaping by going up on the rooftop and witnessing the planes flying overhead.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

It's all just a front

What's worse than razing architectural heritage to make way for boring modern buildings? Keeping just their facades, in an attempt to appease those opposed to demolition and at the same time lend the new constructions a veneer of prestige and character.

Blogger The Gentle Author has been chronicling the trend in his native London, and now some of the worst examples from the book The Creeping Plague Of Ghastly Facadism have been named and shamed on the BBC website. It comes as little surprise to see that at least two of them have been colonised by Costa.

Cardiff has a particularly egregious example in the form of Altolusso, the gargantuan luxury apartment block on Bute Terrace that has retained the facade of the New College. The effect is bizarre, with the bland new development belittling the building that used to stand on the same site.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Treasures of the deep

The BBC's long reads are almost always well worth the effort. Take this one, for instance. I came for the tale of an extraordinary, incredibly expensive CIA plot involving a sunken Soviet sub, a ship equipped with "ingenious devices straight from a Bond film" and an elaborate cover story that fooled the world. But I left with an insight into something I'd never previously heard of or considered: deep-sea mining.

What is clear is that it poses a serious quandary. On the one hand, the precious metals that mining the seabed could potentially produce would help to satisfy a demand that is steadily increasing due to the growing popularity of electric cars and the development of environmentally friendly technologies. But on the other, deep-sea mining would almost certainly involve churning up sediment and destroying sites of rich biodiversity about which barely anything is known. The former argument, you suspect, will win out, simply because there are evidently enormous profits to be made.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

"A privilege to open this window into the past"

There are a whole host of reasons for the fascination with buying and developing old rolls of used film, as the Guardian's Amelia Tait found.

It's not just a voyeuristic interest in other people's lives (though that does undoubtedly come into it) - it's also the thrill of potentially discovering something of historical, cultural or social import; it's the pleasure of "being the first person to ever see these images" (as one enthusiast Levi Bettwieser puts it); it's the desire to save personal items with sentimental value from being completely lost; it's like bringing ghosts to life (to paraphrase another fan, Jack Jewers).

As Tait points out, in the pre-digital, pre-cameraphone era "every roll ... was mystery film - most of us didn't know which pictures would come out, how we were going to look, or which shots would have a blurry finger in the corner, cutting off half the photograph". Perhaps that helps to explain why the forgotten film fans she quotes are all relatively young, in their 20s and 30s - perhaps it's a yearning for a form of excitement that we've lost with the immediacy of digital photos.

Of course, developing these films only generates more questions. Why had the rolls been discarded or neglected? Who's in the photos? Who took them, and why? Bettwieser clearly enjoys the hunt for clues: "When you're taking a picture of someone in your house, you think you're taking a picture of them but what's around them tells a greater story. You look and try and piece together a story of who those people are."

Given the last word by Tait, Bettwieser does a good job of encapsulating the value of photos generally, even if the subject matter is ostensibly trivial or meaningless or the people in front of or behind the camera have been long forgotten: "I try and look at every image I rescue as if I'm looking at it in 50 years - everything I rescue is history. People hold on to rolls of film for years and years in the back of a drawer, because we all know that pictures are history, whether it's just a birthday party or not. Pictures are our only defence against time, our only evidence, sometimes that we ever even existed."

Monday, November 11, 2019

Deconstruction site

To mark the 40th anniversary of the release of The Pop Group's Y, Mute have put out a special reissue - and Treble have published this excellent article in which Jeff Terich and the band members themselves explain what made (and indeed makes) it such an extraordinary album. The LP as a whole is much the same as how Terich describes 'We Are Time': "On the surface it feels like chaos, but its elements all come together into one collision of strange, violent, extraterrestrial joy."

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The end of the road

I might already have written at length about Glenn Edwards' photographic project Route A47zero, but the exhibition's move to the city where the much-loved Welsh highway ends (or begins, depending on your perspective) certainly merited further promotion.

It was great to see the pictures in the flesh on Thursday, and to meet Glenn himself - as well as to pay a long-overdue first visit to the exhibition venue, the Andrew Buchan, a pub that landlord John is clearly determined to make a characterful cultural hub. Anywhere that puts on Gindrinker and has evenings solely dedicated to surrealist film and krautrock is pretty much guaranteed to get a thumbs up from me.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Black magic?

If there's one thing you're guaranteed by taking a look at the Quietus' monthly round-up of metal releases, it's some spectacular band names and album and song titles. Take September's edition, for example, which served up Witch Vomit and Cerebral Rot, whose LP Odious Descent Into Decay features such ditties as 'Reeking Septic Mass' and 'Swamped In Festering Excrementia' - the latter a comment on the state of the nation, one presumes. Surely they can't be doing this with a straight face?

Kez Whelan begins the round-up with critical reviews of the month's three biggest releases (Tool, Slipknot and Entombed) and offers only a lukewarm assessment of Russian Circles' Blood Year, an album that I really enjoyed.

I've given the two records he's most enthusiastic about - Ghold's Input>Chaos and Uniform & The Body's collaboration Everything That Dies Someday Comes Back - a try. Neither could be accused of lacking distinctive character or sticking rigidly to a formulaic genre, but personally speaking that's about as much as can be said for them.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Expert analysis

Academics regularly stand accused of living in ivory towers, cut off from society and content to bumble along in their own little world. Funny, isn't it, how those who make such accusations are also often those who routinely dismiss or simply ignore the findings of academic studies that could and should have a significant impact beyond the research community - something encapsulated in Michael Gove's infamous claim that people have "had enough of experts".

This article on the Transforming Society site celebrates the fact that Philip Alston, UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, drew on work published in the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice in compiling his condemnatory report on contemporary conditions in the UK. The report garnered some press attention and gave ammunition to opposition MPs.

However, what the piece doesn't mention is the predictably depressing response of the Tories, who quibbled with Alston's findings and criticised his language/tone rather than actually engaging with the substance of the report or giving serious consideration to the recommendations. As long as they remain in government, it's hard to foresee a shift from ideology-based policy making to evidence-based policy making - a shift that we so desperately need.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

"I don't need to explain what I do or how I do it"

It probably doesn't help matters that I hate 'Brown Eyed Girl' with a passion and have never listened to Astral Weeks, but Van Morrison really does come across as a monumental prick in this interview with the Guardian's Laura Barton - all 16 minutes and 28 seconds of it.

Doing press must be tedious at times (as I've acknowledged previously, in relation to St Vincent's "interview kit"), but journalists are at least entitled to basic courtesy and respect. According to Morrison, Barton asking straightforward uncontentious questions constitutes "a psychiatric examination". I'd hate to see how he behaves in response to someone who isn't a self-confessed superfan - or at least was before meeting him.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Signs of the times

As a backer myself, it was heartening to hear that the British Culture Archive's crowdfunding appeal has succeeded in raising the targeted £10,000 needed to (among other things) open a permanent exhibition space for the People's Archive in Manchester - and to see that the news has been picked up by the BBC, which can only help to spread the word about this fantastic project.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Know Your Enemy

"A message to my many friends in the UK: a large percentage of the population of the United States of America never can afford to see a doctor because health insurance is prohibitively expensive. This man is trying to kill you and your family."

Who would have thought that Curtis Stigers would end up being a musician worth listening to (here savaging Nigel Farage on Twitter) and that Morrissey would be a moronic racist best ignored?

Friday, November 01, 2019

Desert sessions

One minute I was carving a Halloween pumpkin, the next Sonic Youth's Bad Moon Rising was playing in my head, the next I was watching (for the first time) the footage of the band's January 1985 performance in the Mojave Desert as part of a gig billed as the Gila Monster Jamboree. The performance of 'Death Valley '69' in particular is something special.

This Dangerous Minds post by Oliver Hall tells the story of the legendary "not-totally-legal" show, whose line-up also featured Meat Puppets, Redd Kross and Perry Farrell's pre-Jane's Addiction band Psi Com and whose audience had ingested a lot of LSD.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

This is England

Inspired by J B Priestley's book of the same name, John Angerson's photo series English Journey takes the viewer on a contemporary tour of our not-so-great nation. Brexiteers may have us believe that England is still an idyllic 1950s picture postcard of warm beer, vintage cars and cricket on village greens - but the truth is that it's much more one of grubby plastic garden furniture, horses grazing on industrial estate scrubland and neon McDonald's signs glimpsed through drizzle-patterned Travelodge windows.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Massage Celebrate the history

Prompted by the release of her new LP No Home Record, Spin's Andy Cush has published an article entitled "13 Best Sonic Youth Songs That Put Kim Gordon Center Stage".

His selection includes a number of real gems that are undisputable high points of the band's career, let alone Gordon's own: 'Shadow Of A Doubt', 'Pacific Coast Highway', 'Cross The Breeze', 'Tunic (Song For Karen)', 'Kool Thing', 'Little Trouble Girl'. Of the less celebrated songs, 'Jams Run Free' is an interesting choice. I certainly like but have never quite loved the album on which it appears, Rather Ripped, and Cush's comments make me inclined to listen again.

Of course, this being a listicle and me being a blog-writing music nerd, I can't refrain from raising a few personal quibbles. While 'Swimsuit Issue' is a solid pick, by far and away the best Kim-fronted song on Dirty, surely, is 'Drunken Butterfly' - a song I've previously described as "a quite glorious cacophonous headfuck explosion of noise that sounded to my wet-behind-the-ears ears like something that had been beamed in from another dimension", and one that subsequently proved absolutely critical in the formation/development of my musical tastes. Meanwhile, I approve of Cush's selection of 'Massage The History' but disagree with his assessment of The Eternal - indeed, I'd suggest that its opening track 'Sacred Trickster' would also be worthy of inclusion.

You might assume that Gordon - recently given the dubious distinction of being named a Q Hero - would be a bit miffed at the fact that her debut solo release has prompted someone to wax lyrical about former glories with her old bandmates. But in a tweet she's claimed to have enjoyed the nostalgia trip, describing her time in Sonic Youth as "magical": "I can now marvel at it and know nothing else will ever be like it."

Monday, October 28, 2019

World music

Want to know what the world's listening to? Give Radio Garden a go - it allows you to tune into live streams from digital stations all around the globe with ease, and even to eavesdrop on historical broadcasts.

(Thanks to Simon for the link.)

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Must-not-see TV

We've been treated to some fantastic TV this year: the second series of Fleabag and Mortimer & Whitehouse Gone Fishing, the latest installment of the documentary series Up, Alan Partridge's return to the BBC with This Time - not to mention many others, such as Chernobyl, that I haven't seen but that have had others raving.

By contrast, the programmes mentioned in this Guardian article by Sarah Dempster, which names and shames TV's four worst genres, won't be featuring in any best-of-2019 lists. Her targets are spot on, and skewered to perfection.

The Weekend Cookery Show? "Scallops in chino runoff. Steak in Lynx Sport Blast reduction."

The Costume Romp? "Rudimentary attempts at historical accuracy drowned out by budgetary bluster, clanging anachronisms and unnerving preoccupation with heritage hardbodies that, verily, doth turn even the most grandiose venture into Hollycloaks."

The Consumer Rights Programme? "Menacing exhortations to know your rights lest the heavens split asunder and ye be cast into the eternal fire of implied warranty (Hotpoint 3:16-17)."

And then there's the Cosy Detective Series. Even as a self-confessed semi-ironic fan of Midsomer Murders, I could only nod in amused agreement at the references to "the honeyed peal of garden implement against Home Counties skull" and "no immigrants to spoil the views". It's very true that they present the Daily Mail's vision of post-Brexit Britain, a return to a mythical past that is otherwise best glimpsed by walking around your average jigsaw shop.

Let's be thankful that all this dross exists, though - after all, if it didn't, we wouldn't be able to enjoy Dempster writing about it.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Royal: mint

It's a bold business model, to be sure: publishing a new book every week, each limited to just 250 copies and each for the price of little more than a pint. But that's just what Craig Atkinson has set out to do with Cafe Royal Books, whose black-and-white publications showcase the very best in post-war British documentary photography. If you want to gain an insight into how the nation has changed over the last 70 years - socially, culturally, economically - then you could do much worse than browse their back catalogue.

It was only recently that I came across Cafe Royal, thanks to their publication of Robin Weaver's South Wales In The 1970s, a selection of images from his 2015 book A Different Country - hopefully the subject of a forthcoming feature for Wales Arts Review.

But the archive is so extensive and impressive that I couldn't help but also order something else at the same time - just a wonder that I limited myself to one: Trevor Ashby's England 1970-1990: Work & Play. The photos contained within are both real and surreal, shot by someone with a keen eye for the absurd amid the everyday.

Few of them have failed to raise at very least a smile - from the picture with a big top in the background and a billboard advert showing an elephant being dragged along against its will in the foreground, to the image of the child in a Spiderman mask standing behind a similarly attired hockey goalkeeper, to the shot of the snooty-looking straw-boatered toff pictured next to a lorry emblazoned with the words "SEPTIC TANK & CESSPIT CLEARANCE".

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The weeping songs

Writing about Nick Cave's new LP Ghosteen for the New Statesman, Tracey Thorn declared that "it has floored me. In a good way". I know how she feels. From its first note, it's a jaw-dropping album, one that's hard to take in a single sitting. 'Waiting For You' is particularly incredible. Having found his last two records (Push The Sky Away and Skeleton Tree) impressive but quite hard to love, I'm already smitten with this one. Fingers crossed I'll be there when he and the Bad Seeds call in on Cardiff next May.

Thorn's article is wonderful in its own way - not a review as much as an unapologetically personal appreciation, in which she writes beautifully about the experience of listening to the record on early-morning autumn walks.

Cave, meanwhile, continues to post fascinating, thoughtful and sensitive responses to fan questions on his site The Red Hand Files - such as on harbouring regrets and saying goodbye (he admits to having had difficulty with the latter over the years, often preferring "to cut and run and not look back", without reflection or regret) and on negative self-image and vulnerability (a reply to a troubled teen that is a million times more eloquent and touching than that of your average agony aunt/uncle).

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Sbwriel Gwyn: far from rubbish

In March last year, I went to one band's album launch gig and came away more enthused about another. The outfit in question, Los Blancos, had their own album launch gig towards the tail end of last month - unfortunately I couldn't go, but I did at least get to review the LP for Buzz. And a fine debut Sbwriel Gwyn is, too.

In a good month for new releases, the album round-up also features LPs by Richard Dawson, Foals, DIIV, Clipping, John and Moon Duo, while Noel's verdicts on demos from local types Clwb Fuzz and Seaside Witch Coven suggest considerable promise.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Jurassic Park!

Pity the poor sod who has to try and coax substantial answers out of J Mascis - in this case Rolling Stone's Kory Grow, who was dispatched to talk to (at?) the Dinosaur Jr frontman about the band's 90s output, which has just been reissued on Cherry Red. I'm not ashamed to dispense with any cooler-than-thou pretence and admit that I love their major-label albums much more than their grittier predecessors, so the interview was of particular personal interest.

As is often the way with artists, Mascis claims that his favourite of the four LPs is the one that is least widely celebrated, 1997's Hand It Over, which "seems to be the one that slipped through the cracks", not least because of a lack of label support. It wouldn't be my pick (that would be 1993's Where You Been) but he's absolutely right that more people should know about it. Just give 'Nothin's Goin' On' a listen and tell me it isn't on a par with anything on Without A Sound - or Where You Been, for that matter.

Credit to Grow for getting plenty more out of Mascis than might be expected - about everything from the breakdown of his relationship with Lou Barlow (now patched up) and the semi-legendary Rollercoaster tour (undertaken with The Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and, er, Blur for company) to the covers of Green Mind and Where You Been (the former a Joseph Szabo photo that Mascis first spotted in a book owned by Kim Gordon, the latter painted by an artist who was compelled to continue painting over his own work).

I didn't expect to ever "hear" him say "I wish cars still had the wood panelling", or that he was aware of Noel Fielding wearing a Without A Sound jumper on The Great British Bake-Off...

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Bringing death to life

Her most recent book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?, might have a kids-say-the-funniest-things title (unsurprisingly, given that it's structured around questions posed by children), but Caitlin Doughty's mission - "to dispel the West's fear of death" - does seem to be, as the Guardian's Marianne Eloise has put it, "a very admirable personal aim".

Talking and thinking more about death, Doughty suggests, can be constructive and enable people to be better psychologically equipped to cope with the inevitable. Children's natural curiosity about the subject (one that, as a parent, I've encountered regularly over the last three or four years...) means that such conversations should ideally begin at an early age.

Not only are many of us in the West in denial, we also rely on "cookie-cutter, bland death rituals" that offer little in the way of comfort or meaningful ceremony. In this respect, her pop-anthropology book From Here To Eternity - a survey of such rituals around the world - sounds like a potentially enlightening read.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Past imperfect

If it wasn't made explicit from the outset, I'd suggest that there's still something about these moody and evocative scratched photos created by Aletheia Casey that makes them unmistakably Australian.

Casey explains, "The images seek to uncover hidden atrocities through the disfigured and manipulated landscapes. The series considers how Australia's national identity has been informed by a manipulated version of history. My own manipulation and distortion of the imagery is a part of my personal attempt at coming to terms with the history of the country, leaving my own individual trace within the image and uncovering and revealing a more truthful version of history." As such, they would have been perfect for the flyposters for John Hillcoat and Nick Cave's film The Proposition or the cover of The Drones' Gala Mill.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Beauty pack

I love Low for many reasons - the latest being Alan Sparhawk's use of the band's Twitter account to rate other bands' abilities to pack away their gear into a van/car in a careful, efficient and aesthetically pleasing manner.