Monday, February 24, 2020

It's a Family affair

Fat White Family's influence may be somewhat overstated by besotted music journalists, but you can't deny they've lived up to their name and spawned. Tonight's bill offers the opportunity to see two of their offspring in action.

Lazarus Kane is the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma - or at least an American with an accent so hammy it sounds affected, wrapped in a garish silk kimono, inside another garish silk kimono. Among his backing band is a keyboard player with a ginger mullet and moustache combo that makes him look like a drinking buddy of Begbie who regularly mistakes other men's ears for bar snacks.

Musically, they're no less baffling: a mess of Prince, !!!, rock 'n' roll, jaundiced disco beats, cowbell, flute and madcap Speedy Wunderground labelmates Squid that very occasionally coalesces into moments of genius like single 'Narcissus'. Kane has previously promised that the band's live shows deliver "confusion, arousal and lingering disappointment", and he's not wrong.

Working Men's Club have actually toured with the Fat Whites (playing at Tramshed as recently as November), but they're as much a product of place as of predecessors - that place being Todmorden, situated in the bohemian corridor between Manchester and Leeds where rent is (currently) reasonably cheap, rehearsal/studio spaces are plentiful and the dark hills are alive with the dull throb of illegal raves. Having signed to Heavenly in the middle of 2019, they've been forced to grow up in public, changing half of their members in search of their own voice.

First things first: they look amazing. Syd Minsky-Sargeant: Ian Curtis if he'd lived long enough to enjoy Factory's second peak and frequent the Hacienda. Mairead O'Connor (also of The Moonlandingz): bored oligarch's wife browsing Harrods - Russian fur hat, Burberry scarf, shades, pout, vacant ceilingwards gaze. Rob Graham (borrowed from Drenge): Brylcreemed teddy boy stopping by your house to pick up your older sister in his Ford Capri. Liam Ogburn: bass lynchpin with darting eyes around whom everything else revolves.

Instantly, the dramatic mode of the evening switches from pantomime to serious theatre as Working Men's Club reveal themselves to be an ambitious reimagining of mainstream 80s pop - The Human League, Depeche Mode, even Duran Duran - in the post-punk brain of Mark E Smith. Songs like 'Teeth' are built around an electronic backbone and bristle with the same menace that Minsky-Sargeant exudes even when bobbing shirtless through the teenage throng at the front.

It's enough to make us gentlemen of a certain age further back very excited indeed, and thankful for young people who've grown up with great record collections and now have everything at their fingertips via Spotify but most importantly possess the talent and vision to make creative, interesting use of what they've absorbed.

Yup, the Fat White Kids are alright, alright.

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

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Beyond the divide

In 1956, around a decade before Doris Derby chose to take pictures of the civil rights movement at grassroots level, Life photographer Gordon Parks was assigned the task of showing the daily reality for a black family in Alabama. As Jacqui Palumbo has noted in a piece for Artsy, the resulting series - published under the title Restraints: Open And Hidden - opened readers' eyes to the fact that segregation persisted in the Deep South despite the supposedly landmark US Supreme Court Brown v Board of Education ruling two years earlier.

Yet the pictures did more than merely suggest division. Palumbo quotes from Maurice Berger's contribution to the subsequent 2014 book on the series: "Images like these affirm the power of photography to neutralize stereotypes that offered nothing more than a partial, fragmentary, or distorted view of black life." That they were shot not in the stark black and white of so much documentary photography but in colour was apposite - Parks' perspective was nuanced and complex.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Not being boring

In a recent feature published to coincide with the release of Pet Shop Boys' new album Hotspot, the Guardian's Alexis Petridis noted "The duo are famously entertaining interviewees". It was a totally redundant statement - that much was abundantly evident from the quotes he included. Whether it was revealing that they regularly go to Berghain in Berlin for pre-Sunday lunch drinks or Neil Tennant describing partner Chris Lowe as "the sort of person who, if he'd been a pop star in the 1970s, would have posted a turd to someone he didn't like", the piece only cemented their status as national treasures.

Perhaps inevitably, the comment that made the sub-editor's eyes light up and was subsequently reported most widely was Tennant's "I think the acoustic guitar should be banned, actually". It came during a dissection of modern pop, with Tennant sniping about "narcissistic misery" and pointing out that "authenticity is a style" just like any other.

On the one hand, a blanket ban on acoustic guitars would be too severe - think about some of the babies who'd be thrown out with the bathwater (some of Neil Young's best songs, Radiohead's 'I Promise') - but on the other, it would at least spare us from being enraged by 2 am festival campfire maulings of 'Wonderwall' and bored to death by Ed Sheeran and his ilk.

The latter thought presumably occurred to Petridis, given that he had only recently contributed an article about pop's "ordinary boys" to the Guardian's The Decade In Music series. While the caveats he issued are important - music fans/journalists of a certain age have a tendency to view the past with rose-tinted specs at the same time as either ignoring or being ignorant of the most exciting current talents and developments - he also had a point in suggesting that bland pop stars (very often men with acoustic guitars) have been one of the last decade's most defining phenomena.

Relatability and proximity to your audience, he argued, have become selling points, largely thanks to TV talent contests like Pop Idol and The X Factor and to the game-changing influence of social media. Ironically, those were the same factors that fuelled punk's popularity - young kids were suddenly able to see that anyone could do it - but in this case they've resulted in sterile, say-nothing, lowest-common-denominator dross that impoverishes pop culture rather than enriching it.

Petridis speculated that, faced with the turbulence of contemporary life, "perhaps what people want from pop culture isn't the thrill of the unknown but reassurance and stability". I'd add a caveat of my own here: not "people", but "most people". Thankfully, some are still happy to be challenged - and thankfully some musicians are still happy to oblige.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Access all areas

The impact of Brexit will be felt in pretty much every sphere and sector - and the music industry is no exception. Understandably, the announcement that EU artists will need visas to tour the UK from 2021 has been met with widespread dismay - and indeed anger, given that only last month Culture Minister Nigel Adams was quoted as saying that protecting freedom of movement for artists was "absolutely essential".

The Home Office have clarified that the rules won't apply to artists who come for less than a month, but that won't appease those who have been calling for a two-year working visa that would allow multiple entries over that period of time. If you enjoy seeing the best musicians from across the EU on your own doorstep, then be sure to sign the petition for a Musicians Passport and help to put some pressure on those with the power to make it happen.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The waiting game

Since early September, Chapter's Art In The Bar exhibition has been Jon Pountney's Waiting For The Light. Last Thursday I went along to the arts centre to hear him in conversation with ffotogallery's Mathew Talfan talking about the photo series itself, his philosophy on taking pictures, the concept of "horizontal archaeology" and his feelings on tech fetishism and heavy post-production work. Here's my report for Wales Arts Review.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Everything's relative

I feel like I owe Envy a bit of an apology. Had I not recently reviewed new LPs from Alcest and compatriots and labelmates Mono, and instead been able to consider The Fallen Crimson more on its own merits, then I might have been more impressed. As it was, though, it seemed like something of a poor relation.

Also rated in the February issue of Buzz are new releases from Pet Shop Boys, Wire, Lee Ranaldo & Raul Refree, Sepultura and Dan Deacon.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Cafe culture

Uisce. Pronounced "ISH-ka". Even the name - the Irish word for "water" - has a deeply satisfying mouthfeel, something you can enjoy slurring regardless of how much of the wine list you've sampled. It calls itself a cafe, but don't be fooled into expecting fry-ups, formica table-tops and squeezable ketchup bottles - it might be the kid brother to its stylish next-door neighbour Heaneys, but (in the evening, at least) offers a comparably fine dining experience where everything is prepared and presented with care, attention, craft and imagination in surroundings that are simultaneously contemporary and cosy. We could have done without the lounge version of 'Blue Monday', mind.

Charcuterie is one of Uisce's specialities, so we start with a platter of Houghton pork loin - interesting flavoured and nice enough, though confirmation of the universal truth that you should never choose anything ahead of chorizo. Meanwhile, the frothy pink parfait beneath which rich, meaty duck rillette is buried functions primarily to create a lucky dip for the fork, and as ever I'm baffled by the trend for lacing perfectly serviceable dishes with pomegranate.

Other combinations, however - such as cauliflower and apple beurre - are a delight. A sensational steak and Guinness pudding, doused in gloopy lamb jus and crowned with a crunchy garnish, not only thoroughly deserves its place on the specials board but makes up for the disappointment of learning that the much-fabled lamb crumpet isn't on tonight's menu. Most remarkable, though, is the parsnip cream served with the cod, which easily wins over someone with an avowed aversion to the anaemic carrot and thereby pulls much the same trick as Heaneys does with its Marmite butter. It's alchemy, I tell you.

Some might lament the absence of a fresh, palate-cleansing dessert, but one bite of an impossibly light and airy churro liberally smeared in molten chocolate would make them change their tune. Likewise a single spoonful of the espresso panna cotta, topped with pieces of brownie - I hesitate to call them "chunks", as that suggests solidity rather than the gooey reality.

A flavourful temperanillo and a crisp Vinho Verde are among the cheapest options on the wine list, which begs the question: just how good must things be when you work your way further up? We'll just have to come back again to find out.

(An edited version of this review appeared in the February issue of Buzz.)

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The times they were a-changin'

The late 1960s were a turbulent period in US history, to say the least - but as a result a great time to be a teenage wannabe documentary photographer trying to make a name for yourself. The title of David Fenton's 2008 exhibition at the Steven Kasher Gallery in New York, Eye Of The Revolution, was well chosen: he and his camera were regularly in the thick of the action, on hand to capture anti-Vietnam protests, civil rights marches and the Black Panthers in action.

I came across Fenton via the extraordinary image on the cover of Johanna Fernandez's new book The Young Lords: A Radical History. Not only was I not previously aware of his work, I was also ignorant of the Young Lords, a Black Panther-inspired group of largely Puerto Rican left-wing activists based in New York whose name may not be widely known but whose legacy, Fernandez argues, is nevertheless significant.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Know Your Enemy

"The kind of protest that gets rave reviews from the mainstream media for its bravery. Brave? No, not by a long shot. More like an actress acting the part of someone who cares. As so many of them do. I find Portman's type of activism deeply offensive to those of us who actually do the work. I'm not writing this out of bitterness, I am writing out of disgust. I just want her and other actresses to walk the walk. ... You 'A-listers' could change the world if you'd take a stand instead of being the problem. Yes, you, Natalie. You are the problem. Lip service is the problem. Fake support of other women is the problem."

Natalie Portman may have garnered headlines for her Oscar dress embroidered with the names of female directors snubbed for nominations, but Rose McGowan was clearly not one of those applauding - and with good reason, when you actually look at the track record of Portman's own production company.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Sound advice

How better to mark Valentine's Day than with the return of Uncle Agony (aka Aidan Moffat) to the Quietus? Here he is responding to a message from a musician secretly in love with their guitarist and asking whether it would be wise to make a move:

"While the thought of being in a band with a romantic or sexual partner fills me with screaming horror - don't shit where you eat, as the saying goes - it all depends on how much you value your band, and whether you think your working relationship can survive the inevitable new pressures that love and lust provide. Shagging's great, but it's also a gateway to many other emotions that may not have existed before: jealousy, infatuation, obsession, insecurity... emotions that may become especially apparent as you watch your paramour nightly shredding their way into the hearts, minds and pants of ripe, enthusiastic and sexually generous fans. ... If you think it's worth risking your band's future to feel those rough, calloused fingertips gently caressing your electrified gooseflesh in a twenty-six-pound Travelodge, then just go for it, and enjoy it while it lasts. Which probably won't be forever."

Sage advice, to be fair. Here's hoping this isn't just a one-off and he's back in the position for the long term, eh? Or maybe he could alternate with Andrew Falkous of Mclusky and Future Of The Left?

From Hero to villain

A slow hand clap for Slowthai for instantly pissing away his Hero Of The Year status with Wednesday night's onstage antics - though no doubt the NME will be delighted that he's helped to remind people that their awards night is still a thing. There's since been an apology, but also a simultaneous attempt to make light of his conduct by claiming it "started as a joke".

Inevitably, the backlash has been swift, and he's already found himself stripped of his ambassadorial role for Record Store Day. Nadine Shah is just one of those who has stuck the boot in: "Glad others are now awake to the fact that Slowthai is a waste of space, opportunistic little shit. Never believed his politics. The kid is a pathetic little jerk." Ouch. It might be a long road back from here.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Members only

If Truck's bill was bad in terms of gender balance, then that of Reading and Leeds is certainly no better. Unless, that is, the "many more to be announced" are all women...

Predictably, though quite rightly, the Guardian's Laura Snapes expressed her exasperation in no uncertain terms: "By this stage we can conclusively assume that Melvin Benn doesn't give a shit about representation. The whole thing can fuck off. Kids deserve better and they know it. And every male act playing at that festival who isn't using their power to demand better representation on bills should take a long hard look at themselves too."

Radio 1's Annie Mac agreed: "Feeling so disheartened about this Reading and Leeds line up. At the blatant lack of want to represent women. For all the 16 year old girls going to their first festival at Reading and Leeds 2020. Just know that you DO belong on those stages."

Snapes' barbed comment about male acts is probably directed in particular at headliners Rage Against The Machine and self-proclaimed feminists IDLES. They may well have been in the dark about the composition of the bill at the time they signed up, but her point is that ignorance is no defence - it's incumbent upon such acts to make a gender-balanced bill a contractual stipulation if they are to be true allies and for genuine change to happen.

The 1975's Matt Healy has publicly taken up the gauntlet, pledging to do just that going forwards on the grounds that "people need to act and not chat". He did however admit "I'm sure my agents are having kittens right now", and how it will (or would) work out in practice is anyone's guess.

Of course, it would be nice if festival bookers gave greater consideration to representative line-ups without having to have their arms twisted into doing so. Snapes has previously praised Primavera's policy, and would also presumably be heartened by the mouthwatering bill for Bluedot, which is due to be headlined by Bjork and features Anna Meredith, Pussy Riot, Lanterns On The Lake and Pumarosa alongside Holy Fuck, Beak>, Ride, !!! and Daniel Avery. With bookings of that quality, the festival - held at Jodrell Bank Observatory in late July - really has announced itself as a major player on the summertime scene.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Oh they do like to be beside the seaside

The great British seaside: a place that has attracted and held the interest of numerous photographers - not least Martin Parr and David Hurn, whose pictures were exhibited under that four-word title at the National Maritime Museum in London two years ago.

Chris Killip's first solo exhibition, at the Side Gallery in Newcastle (of which he was a founder member) in 1984, focused on the hardy people who eked out a living by gathering seacoal in Lynemouth. The resulting images were in keeping with his generally bleak portrayal of the north east under Thatcher. But, as a new Cafe Royal Books publication illustrates, Killip had previously taken photos of beach subjects at leisure rather than at work. Even then, though, none of them appear to be particularly enjoying the sea air, instead seeming faintly bored or underwhelmed and disillusioned by the whole experience.

Visiting Killip in the mid-1970s, Czech-born London-dwelling photographer Marketa Luskacova also recognised the beach as fertile ground for image making, but her pictures - collected in an RRB book called By The Sea, published to coincide with last year's exhibition at the Martin Parr Foundation - are in many ways very different. The stoicism in Killip's work is grim-faced endurance; in Luskacova's, it's a determination to have fun whatever the weather. "Life was good", she has said, "and perhaps my happiness was reflected in the way I photographed there."

Monday, February 10, 2020

Prize fighters

Forgive the backslapping, but it's nice to see Buzz among the finalists in the Best Music Press category for the 2020 Cardiff Music Awards, alongside equally worthy nominees God Is In The TV and Minty's Gig Guide. I'm glad to have been a regular contributor over the last few years.

Elsewhere, Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard are up for two awards (Best Group and Best Live Act), and while I'm not familiar with all of the Best Album nominees, it'll take something very special indeed to beat KEYS' Bring Me The Head Of Jerry Garcia.

Clwb is surely a shoo-in for Best Independent Venue, and if there's any justice the Moon's Liz Hunt should walk away with either Promoter Of The Year or Best Local Promoter.

I was surprised to see that the Cardiff Psych & Noise Fest has failed to make the shortlist for either Best Festival or Lineup Of The Year, but there's no disputing that Swn's bill was packed full of goodness - likewise Bubblewrap's pre-Christmas tenth birthday party.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Vinyl boom - bust?

In a New York Times expose published last year, Jody Rosen described the fire that ripped through Universal Music Group's archive in 2008 as "the biggest disaster in the history of the music business" - and not without good reason, as it claimed the master tapes of scores of artists and several legendary record labels.

But the blaze that has completely destroyed Apollo Masters' manufacturing and storage facility in California is also going to have a huge impact on the industry, at least in the short term, as the company was one of only two global makers of "the lacquer used in the production of master discs, from which vinyl records are made, as well as the styli used in the pressing process".

At very least, the incident is going to set vinyl release schedules back significantly - and, as usual, those likely to be worst affected will be the indies, whose orders are bumped so that those of the big boys can be fulfilled as a priority. At worst, it may burst the vinyl bubble altogether.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Unlucky Jim

The undoubted egotism involved in fancying yourself as a "critic" leads you to believe vehemently in your own opinion but to be instinctively mistrustful of the opinions of others. Or maybe that's just me. Either way, my immediate reaction to the fulsome puffs on the cover of James Acaster's Classic Scrapes - including Richard Herring making the grand claim "I don't think I've ever read a book that has made me cry with laughter as much as this one" - was to be sceptical.

In this instance, I'd suggest, that scepticism was reasonably well-founded - the book is only sporadically "laugh-out-loud hilarious" (Chortle), Acaster's voice doesn't translate as well on the page as it does on stage or on TV, and (as he himself anticipates) he emerges as a less likeable figure than the endearingly gawky oddball character he's cultivated. But to sum it up/write it off in those terms is to do it (and him) a disservice.

The book is a compilation of unfortunate and often undignified incidents that have befallen its author, who first regaled audiences with most of them as a guest on his friend Josh Widdicombe's radio show. It opens with the arresting line "When I was a baby, I urinated into my own mouth"; as Acaster admits, "this book is essentially the tale of a man repeatedly urinating into his own mouth", and ends with no real lessons learned.

Arranged chronologically, the accounts form a curious sort of memoir - one that starts with scarring experiences at school and moves through disastrous early public performances, various ill-advised forays into music, ill-fated attempts to broaden his horizons and range of interests, and a number of car crashes. (Warning: do not get into a vehicle if he's at the wheel.)

In fairness to Acaster, the title of this post is a bit misleading - he doesn't see himself as one of those people to whom things just seem to happen. On the contrary, he's sufficiently self-aware to acknowledge that his naivety (often extreme), his twisted sense of logic, his impulsiveness and his Larry-David-esque capacity to dig himself an ever deeper hole are all factors that help to explain why there are enough incidents to fill a book.

Inevitably, some of the scrapes are more amusing than others. 'Fell Foot Sound' (about a catastrophic amateur music festival) is a particular favourite, though I won't give away any spoilers. However, regular viewers of Would I Lie To You? will already be familiar with the phenomenon of cabadging and know that Acaster once spent the night wearing a dress in a bush outside Basingstoke train station.

Which begs the question: now that these episodes are published and out in the public domain, will he have to land himself in more awkward and bizarre situations to have enough material to be invited back on the show? Given his track record and incorrigible nature, I suspect he won't have to try very hard.

Friday, February 07, 2020

Feel good hits of the 7th February

It's been a while...

There should really be at least one Welsh-language track in here, what with it being Dydd Miwsig Cymru and all, but you'll just have to make do with three from Cardiff-based bands.

1. 'Lark' - Angel Olsen
As if All Mirrors' title track wasn't astonishing enough. 'Lark' is a whole album's worth of drama squeezed into less than seven minutes. My money's on this being the show-stealer in Bristol on Monday night.

2. 'Hands Melt' - Squirrel Flower
Another voice to stop you dead in your tracks - as it did to me at Green Man. Time to tuck into her new LP I Was Born Swimming, methinks.

3. 'Spin' - Silent Forum
On a debut album stuffed with great singles, this might just be the best - it's certainly the one that's been on heaviest rotation round SWSL Towers. I just hope that Everything Solved At Once's December release doesn't mean that it slips through the cracks - that would be a fate it doesn't deserve.

4. 'Waiting For You' - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
On every Bad Seeds album there's pretty much guaranteed to be a song that absolutely floors me from the first listen. Ghosteen has more than one, but this brought the biggest lump to the throat and the most mist to the eye.

5. 'I Only Want You For Your Rock And Roll' - KEYS
We want KEYS for more than just rock and roll - we want them for the gorgeous Shins-esque 'Broken Bones' that closes new LP Bring Me The Head Of Jerry Garcia, for instance - but this gleeful romp is immensely satisfying and a large reason why I was so quick to pick up a ticket for Rat Trap's closing party at G39 next month (the presence of Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard on the bill being another).

6. 'Reducer' - Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs
Let's face it - I'd be into this even if it wasn't for the wall of Orange amps, the drummer's Slint T-shirt and Matt Baty's Newcastle Utd shorts. That drop/slow-down from 2:50 onwards - wow.

7. 'Air BnB' - Kim Gordon
The most obvious route for a Sonic Youth fan to take to get properly into No Home Record - and yet I still haven't quite been able to do it. It'll happen, though - I'm sure of it.

8. 'Don't Cling To Life' - The Murder Capital
About as straightforward as The Murder Capital get on When I Have Fears, an album that's cut from a similar cloth to fellow Dubliners Fontaines DC's acclaimed Dogrel but has more depth and diversity. Definitely on the must-see list for this year's Green Man.

9. 'O Silly Me' - Boy Azooga
Davey Newington reckons that this little ditty about anxiety might be the best thing he's ever written, and I for one am not about to disagree. Codas don't come much more blissful.

10. 'Grow Into A Ghost' - Swearin
While Katie Crutchfield seems to have taken a pop turn with Waxahatchee (with mixed results), her sister and former PS Eliot bandmate Allison's Swearin remain none more indie-rock - which, just to be clear, is something to be thankful for.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Sori seems to be the hardest word

Zoe Williams' first mistake was to suggest that learning Welsh was "existentially pointless", like running on the spot or "eating cottage cheese". A flippant aside for comic effect, but hardly spontaneous and off-the-cuff (given that it appeared in a printed piece that she presumably took time to compose), and the sort of thing you'd expect of a poisonous Daily Mail ranter like Richard Littlejohn rather than a seasoned and usually sensible Guardian columnist.

OK - reflect, apologise and move on.

But no - Williams chose instead to double down on her comment, sarcastically declaring on Twitter "I appear to have triggered a Welsh independence movement", insisting that "learning a not-very-widely-spoken language is a lot of effort for low reward" and making a nasty Littlejohn-esque snipe at "performative offence-takers". It's not taking performative offence to be proud of your language and therefore irritated to see it belittled and mocked in a national newspaper.

English born and bred but now living in Cardiff, I personally am learning Welsh for three main reasons: to improve my job prospects for the future; to enable me to support my son, who's in Welsh-medium education; to be able to chat to my friends in their own language. It might be "a lot of effort" (particularly grappling with mutations), but it certainly won't be "low reward".

But I'm also learning Welsh because I want to feel more a part of the country in which I live - more connected to its culture and history - and because I agree with Mark Abley, author of Spoken Here, that there is an inherent value to languages and therefore also to learning them. Williams simply doesn't seem to understand that - for her, it seems, learning a language has to have a rational purpose and offer a significant return. It's a neoliberal model that I just don't buy.

In his book, a passionate plea for the preservation of linguistic diversity for its own sake, Abley hails Welsh as a success story but acknowledges that it nevertheless continues to be insulted and threatened. Williams' throwaway comment doesn't look quite so throwaway when placed in the context of historical English attitudes to the Welsh language, or to a 2019 Sunday Times poll that asked readers in all seriousness "Should Wales continue to support the teaching of Welsh in schools?" (Perhaps the paper is just bitter that a language it declared "the curse of Wales" and dead "for all practical purposes" in 1866 is still very much alive and kicking more than 150 years later.)

As someone who has released a Welsh-medium LP and a follow-up in an even more minority language, Cornish, Gwenno was unsurprisingly among those who took offence at Williams' remark (with justification, not performatively). As she suggested on Twitter, there are distinctive traces of imperialist thinking in the continuing assumption that English is linguistically and culturally superior - thinking that has undoubtedly "contributed to this hot Brexit mess we're in".

And while we're talking about taking offence, Zoe, I don't want to live in a country in which people take offence at others for speaking in their native tongue. Perhaps you should think twice before making remarks that help to normalise that attitude.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Building a better world

The post-war period was not so much a time of reconstruction and return to the pre-war status quo as one of change, idealism and looking to the future, in terms of both the physical and the sociopolitical environment - and photographers were on hand to document it.

In the UK, there was an urgent demand for new housing, of course, but also for new cultural spaces and places of worship - and an acknowledgement that the nation's transport and energy infrastructures needed to be modernised. The construction company Laing were responsible for a host of significant projects, as illustrated by the fascinating pictures taken from their archives and recently made publicly available by Historic England.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, change was also afoot in the form of the burgeoning civil rights movement. Rather than shooting the headline-grabbing protests and unrest, Doris Derby instead chose to focus her lens on the ordinary people dedicated to the cause who took up various roles - as nurses, as teachers, as grassroots organisers, as members of cooperatives - to contribute to the construction of a brighter future for generations of African Americans.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Heroes and villains

The Guardian's Michael Hann may have enjoyed playing devil's advocate in publishing a piece in praise of Mike Love (and other business-savvy musicians) a couple of years ago, but it was telling that, according to Pitchfork's Stacey Anderson, Love couldn't make himself "convincingly tolerable as a human being" even in his own memoir. The fact that he's now happily sullying the Beach Boys' name by performing at a trophy-hunting convention at which Donald Trump Jr is the keynote speaker underlines what he's like. Former bandmates Brian Wilson and Al Jardine have expressed their disgust and urged fans to sign a petition, but are powerless to prevent Love from going ahead with the concert.

If Love's in search of an ally within the world of music, then he need look no further than Kid Rock. The redneck rapper has been quite open about his fondness for shooting defenceless animals in the company of Trump Jr, claiming somewhat improbably that it was a fitting tribute to the late Kobe Bryant.

Monday, February 03, 2020

Trucking awful

The line-up for Green Man already looked good last week, but it looks infinitely better alongside the bill announced by the festival that was formerly on my doorstep. This year's Truck boasts (to use that word with unprecedented levels of sarcasm) the likes of Blossoms, Catfish And The Bottlemen, The Kooks, DMAs, Bombay Bicycle Club and The Pigeon Detectives. They might as well rebrand the bash Now That's What I Call Landfill Indie.

I don't know what's most depressing - the appalling gender balance (chucking in The Big Moon and The Orielles can't offset things, lads) or the fact that that line-up has still got people falling over themselves to buy tickets.

Still, at least there's the chance that Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs will terrify/blow a few tiny minds.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

"I feel lucky to have been there"

The untimely death of Andy Gill at just the age of just 64 has inevitably sparked a host of tributes to him as a person, as a pioneer of the punk-funk style of guitar playing and as a key member of Gang Of Four, a band whose influence has resonated far more than their commercial success would suggest.

In much the same way that Daniel Dylan Wray told the story and celebrated the legacy of Sheffield's post-punk scene in December, Dave Simpson spoke to some of the central protagonists in its Leeds equivalent back in April - Gill included. Gang Of Four and partners in crime Mekons were the product of a particular time and place, enthusiastically adopting the DIY ethic of first-wave UK punk and pushing it further. Their radical politics inevitably earned them both loyal friends and bitter enemies; Woody Guthrie may have made the metaphorical point that "This machine kills fascists", but Gill once literally used his guitar to clout a neo-Nazi.

It's worth noting that he also made his influence felt as a producer, and was at the controls for albums by The Jesus Lizard, The Futureheads and Killing Joke as well as those released by his own band. However, it would be great if everyone could please stop holding him personally responsible for Red Hot Chili Peppers - and not just because we shouldn't speak ill of the dead. He may have been on production duties for the band's self-titled debut, but he was frank in his assessment of 'Police Helicopter' - "Shit" - which made a nettled Anthony Kiedis and Flea feel like they were "working with the enemy".

Friday, January 31, 2020

Get streetwise

"Street photography is one of the most difficult genres to master", says Valerie Jardin, but the advice she gives - via Anita Chaudhuri's article in the Guardian - seems sensible and helpful. For instance, set out to take pictures on a particular theme that's of personal interest; be discerning and take time to look for photo opportunities and the right moment rather than shooting anything and everything; and stick to the same focal length, so that "in time your eye will know exactly what you're going to get before you even press the shutter".

She stresses the significance of luck, given the unpredictability of the subject matter - which means that you should be content with a low strike rate. Equally reassuring is the fact that technique merits little mention and kit isn't discussed at all. I've come across a few debates on Twitter on this subject recently, and as a rank amateur with only a moderately respectable camera it's good to be told that your eye for a photo is more important than what equipment you have to capture it with.

The article also touches on the thing that really stops me from throwing myself into street photography: the issue of ethics. Take candid pictures of strangers and it seems unethical; insist on asking their permission first and not only are the results are inevitably slightly staged and lack the same immediacy but you also end up missing out on so many golden opportunities. Robert Capa emphasised the value of actual proximity; Jardin suggests using a longer lens if getting up close and personal makes you feel uncomfortable. Either way, though, there's an element of intrusion. How, I wonder, did street photography's biggest names approach the issue? Did they just not have any scruples?

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Lessons learned

Old school files destined for the recycling continue to be the source of what I believe young people these days call sick burns: "I suspect that this highlights your strengths and weaknesses. Strength is a dogged determination to work your way through an argument which eludes you in places. Weakness is that when you draw a blank with meaning, you retire behind a series of verbal formulae." Plus ca change, eh? It's funny how comments like this still smart 25 years later, and how uncomfortable it is to find yourself on the receiving end of a critic's pen.

Collectively the files are a reminder of how hard I was pushed as a kid, and also how the past is foreign country and life hasn't quite panned out as anticipated, placing me on the outside of academia looking in rather than the inside looking out. Ah well - que sera sera, to use another French phrase.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The hills are alive with the sound of Tropical Fuck Storm

This year's Green Man line-up, then. I have to admit there was more than a touch of disappointment when I saw that neither Angel Olsen nor Pavement were included, and Michael Kiwanuka and Mac Demarco are underwhelming headliners - the latter filling the Father John Misty role of To Be Avoided At All Costs.

Those grumbles aside, there's a wealth of stuff to whet the appetite on a bill that suggests a continuing move away from folk, country and MOR singer-songwriters. Personally speaking, I can't wait for a first encounter with Ty Segall, the most prolific man in garage punk, and Tropical Fuck Storm, the provocative new(ish) project from Gareth Liddiard of The Drones.

It'll be nice to renew acquaintances with Moon Duo, recent Mclusky tour support John and Nadine Shah (the latter's show at the Globe was one of my favourites of 2017), and to see how Shame and The Murder Capital match up live (my money's on the latter).

If their sets at ATP in 2011 are anything to go by, Caribou will get the whole of the Mountain Stage crowd moving - as will Parquet Courts if they play 'Wide Awake'. Label du jour Speedy Wunderground are once again represented, with black midi following in the footsteps of Black Country New Road and Squid, and there are of course local flagwavers in the form of Gruff Rhys and Boy Azooga.

Throw in Danish experimental pop artist Agnes Obel and Richard Dawson, whose single 'Jogging' was one of the oddest and most fascinating I heard last year, and we've got one hell of a weekend in store.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

From Usk till dawn

With the first Green Man line-up announcement due at 9 am tomorrow morning, it was about time I revisited my hasty notes on last year's event and cobbled together a scattershot report...

* * * * *

Green Man 2019 constituted my long-overdue return to Proper Festivalling - by which I mean putting myself at the mercy of the elements, staying under canvas for several nights in a row and playing the chemical toilet lottery. How different would it be with a kid in tow? Would I get to see a fraction of the things I wanted? And, perhaps most importantly, would I have the stamina to burn the candle at both ends, rather than just at one?

Thankfully, Green Man proved to be stupendously enjoyable for all concerned. It took just a few hours for Stanley to declare "I love this place" - before he'd even had the opportunity to explore the entertainment on offer in the Little Folk area and in Einstein's Garden; an indulgent partner and an extended circle of friends meant I missed very few of the acts I'd had my heart set on seeing; and courtesy of a potent combination of caffeine, alcohol and adrenalin I had sufficient stamina to dash about during the day, party well into the early hours and still rouse myself upright after a handful of snatched hours' sleep.

But enough of that - time to report back on what I actually saw, heard and ate...

Best New Discovery

A two-way tie between SQUIRREL FLOWER (Mountain Stage, Friday) and SHARON VAN ETTEN (Mountain Stage, Sunday).

The former, who I'd never even heard of, looked like St Vincent and sounded like Angel Olsen playing Snail Mail in slow motion. Her spectacular voice and shimmering chords cut through the midday drizzle and stunned me statuesque - particularly on 'Daylight Savings', 'Hands Melt' and 'Midwestern Clay', the three tracks that conclude her 2016 EP Contact Sports. And to think I'd have missed her if I hadn't succumbed to the lure of a first pint of the day at the Mountain Stage bar. Serendipity doesn't come much better than that.

Sharon Van Etten, by contrast, was already on my radar but for some reason I'd never listened to her records. A mystery given that her label Jagjaguwar has exceptional taste, and especially in light of how revelatory her performance was - the perfect Sunday evening soundtrack as the sun was setting on the festival, both literally and metaphorically. The journey she's taken from her indie folk roots to the darker, more dramatic material of latest LP Remind Me Tomorrow was in evidence, while lament for lost youth 'Seventeen' was a collective hairs-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck experience.

Honourable mentions for SONS OF KEMET (Mountain Stage, Saturday), whose invigorating, brain-scrambling jazz made me want to move rather than stroke my chin, thanks largely to the percussive genius of their double drummers and the funk basslines played on a tuba, and BIG THIEF (Mountain Stage, Saturday), whose warm, subtle and delicately balanced songs occasionally burst into guitar pyrotechnics that were as gorgeous as they were unexpected.

Brightest Young Post-Punk Things

There were plenty to choose from, that's for sure.

With the sleek, sullen machine music from Psychic Data, TVAM (Far Out, Friday) hit a dark groove but, like the accompanying visuals, gradually lost their appeal through repetition.

BODEGA (Far Out, Thursday) had the stage presence and a primitivist Parquet Courts sound (not surprising, given that that band's Austin Brown was responsible for recording debut LP Endless Scroll), but ultimately lacked the songs.

Meanwhile, oddballs SQUID (Walled Garden, Friday) were able to boast the brilliant 'Houseplants' but had nothing else to match - and the decision to deploy a female dancer with sunflower nipple tassels was dubious at best.

Victory, then, for BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD (Rising, Saturday), whose eccentric collision of post-punk, jazz, African rhythms, Talking Heads and even (to these ears) klezmer was absolutely astonishing. The vocalist was a study in intensity, the drummer was exceptional and the keyboardist somehow managed to look bored out of her brain. They were fresh from filling a gap up at the Far Out, and had clearly brought a lot of new converts down the hill with them. The worry was that they already looked discomforted in the face of the frenzied attention they thoroughly deserved - which doesn't bode well for longevity.


With PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS (Far Out, Friday) on the bill, this was never really going to be much of a contest, was it? Considerably heftier than your average Green Man act they may have been, but their stonergasm riffage didn't cause people to flee - on the contrary, they actually had punters scurrying into the tent, escaping the rain by wandering into the midst of a thunderstorm. At last - a band from Newcastle I can be unequivocally enthusiastic about.

YAK (Far Out, Sunday) also deserve a mention for their habit of swaggering along in a Strokesy fashion and then suddenly dropping down into a Sabbath register - as well as for Oli Burslem's ability to continue playing guitar while lying on his back on top of the crowd.

Least Surprising Surprise Guests

You could have banked on Gruff Rhys turning up at some point - and turn up he did, joining YO LA TENGO (Mountain Stage, Friday) together with bandmate and former Flaming Lip Kliph Scurlock.

But this particular prize went to THE WEDDING PRESENT (Far Out, Thursday), who, for the second year in a row, performed at very short notice. Amadou & Mariam's delayed arrival in Wales left the organisers with a bit of a headache, but one quick call to David Gedge - who was in rehearsals with the band up in Leeds - and it was problem solved. They may not have replicated the exceptional Bizarro anniversary set from May, but they were still brilliant - from a storming 'Corduroy', through 'You Should Keep In Touch With Your Friends' and a rendition of 'Kennedy' that had the whole tent bouncing, to an epic 'Take Me' to end, a laughing Gedge hoping that the PA wouldn't be switched off mid-song. Perhaps they might actually be invited to play from the start next year.

Most Crowd-Pleasing Show

Despite feeling compelled to watch YO LA TENGO, I had been fearing the worst - latest album There's A Riot Going On is (whisper it) a bit boring. Those fears proved unfounded, though - this was a true festival set, a smorgasbord of delights from throughout their career, including solid-gold indie-rock classic 'Sugarcube', James McNew's playful and jaunty 'Mr Tough', the breezy and percussive 'Autumn Sweater' and a stellar version of 'I Heard You Looking' that went on for an eternity and still wasn't long enough.

But if we're putting greater emphasis on performance, then EELS (Mountain Stage, Sunday) claimed the win hands down. 'Novocaine For The Soul' had me fondly recalling their TOTP debut and 'My Beloved Monster' was dedicated to "all the little brats" who like Shrek; 'Dog Faced Boy' was augmented by an appearance from its co-creator, John Parrish; the guitarist showed off his catwalk sashay; there was a special song to introduce the new drummer; 'I Like Birds', 'Souljacker (Part 1)' and 'Mr E's Beautiful Blues' were all marvellous; but the true highlights were 'Daisies Of The Galaxy' and 'I Like The Way This Is Going', both of which exemplified E's talent for crafting songs that are at once simple and profound.

Best Back-To-Back Tracks

CAR SEAT HEADREST (Far Out, Saturday) may have been a quartet once more, with gawky Joey Ramone-like songwriter Will Toledo back on guitar (hired hands Grant Mullen, Gianni Aiello and Henry LaVallee having scored a major-label record deal for their own band, Naked Giants), but they nevertheless pulled the same trick as they did in Cardiff in November 2018, pairing 'Drunk Drivers/Killer Whale' with 'Destroyed By Hippie Powers' for a knockout one-two combination. Coming mid-set, it meant they peaked too early - but what a peak.

Most Unsuitable For Children's Ears

You might have thought FAT WHITE FAMILY (Mountain Stage, Friday) - or "Flat White Family", as Jen insisted on referring to them (she clearly had Hard Lines coffees on the brain) - would win this hands down. But in truth they're a far less outrageous, confrontational act these days - subtly subversive ironists rather than in-your-face provocateurs - and the set felt surprisingly like a hit parade.

E, by contrast, took great delight in screaming "FUCK!" at sufficient volume to have middle-class parents within a fifty-mile radius of the site wishing their kids were temporarily deaf. And AUDIOBOOKS (Far Out, Thursday) got the festival off to a deliciously dirty start with Evangeline Ling's stream-of-consciousness "All I see is tits, tits, tits", sordid bona fide banger 'Friends In The Bubble Bath' and a new dark techno song that found Ling pleading with increasing desperation "Send me your pictures". Pitched somewhere between The Slits and The Human League, the art student's improbable partnership with warlock-like producer David Wrench is producing some exceptional(ly odd) pop.

Best Between-Song Patter

It's hard to look past that man E again, I think, joking about dying on stage and claiming that for once his shades-wearing isn't merely rock star pretension. But he was definitely given a run for his money by Matt Baty. Claiming that "Rock should be wholesome and hydrating" while swigging from a bottle that looked suspiciously like vodka, the PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS PIGS frontman transported us back to Castle Donington in 1979, where Status Quo were "expanding minds with their three-chord psychedelia", Judas Priest were set to headline and his own band were actually Twisted Sister.

Best Soul Bingo Set

OK, dabbers at the ready, eyes down... "Can I get a witness"? Yes. "I been..."? Yup. "My woman"? Yeah. A massive build-up to the main man's entrance? Yep. A white glittery suit? Uh-huh. A song dedicated to "all the ladies"?  Full house! LEE FIELDS & THE EXPRESSIONS (Mountain Stage, Saturday) pitched up in pretty much the perfect slot.

Worst Cover

A toss-up between EELS chucking in an ill-advised version of 'Purple Rain' early doors or CAR SEAT HEADREST deciding that a lead-footed take on 'Superstition' would make for a fitting conclusion to their set. Why?!!

Most Grating Musical Performance

ALDOUS HARDING (Mountain Stage, Sunday) caused much consternation, personally speaking, by sounding like the sublime Julia Holter one minute and then a nauseatingly kooky indie-folk sprite the next. Eluding narrow pigeon-holes is one thing, but continually trying on different styles rather than playing to your strengths is another.

That said, she was still nowhere near as irritating as the bagpiper who presumed (wrongly) that he would be a welcome source of distraction and entertainment for the new arrivals in the long Thursday afternoon queue for wristbands. Talk about a captive audience. The poor sods.

Biggest Disappointment

"Disappointment" was certainly not the right word for IDLES (Far Out, Sunday), who closed out the weekend with simultaneously furious and joyous abandon, and you can't argue with 'Samaritans' and a song called 'Never Fight A Man With A Perm'. And yet I found myself grumbling about an audience that was aggressively boisterous and wishing that I hadn't watched the Glastonbury highlights, because it spoiled any surprises in what had by that point in the summer become a finely honed (relatively speaking) festival set.

Meanwhile, with 'Metronomic Underground' STEREOLAB (Mountain Stage, Saturday) delivered ten minutes of head-nodding bliss but otherwise, as my teenage companion observed, looked like secondary school teachers on an away day trying to keep themselves awake. It didn't help, either, that I missed practically all of 'French Disko' due to an appallingly timed bar run.

However, that was all my own fault - unlike the organisers' curious decision to invite Elizabeth Bernholz aka GAZELLE TWIN (Talking Shop, Friday) to speak about the dark undercurrents in the countryside and the antipathy to the twee that informed 2018's extraordinary LP Pastoral, but not to actually perform anything from it on stage in character. She was in conversation with Jude Rogers and Quietus founder LUKE TURNER, who spoke engagingly about his unclassifiable debut book Out Of The Woods - not least when noting, with justifiable amusement, that it received positive reviews in publications as diverse as Countryfile, Church Times and Attitude.

"Wish I'd Seen More Of" Acts

BILL RYDER-JONES (Walled Garden, Friday), who was always the best thing about The Coral - something only underlined by solo records like Yawn; HEN OGLEDD (Far Out, Saturday) and their weird pastoral experimentalism; Aussie STELLA DONNELLY (Mountain Stage, Saturday), who played up her Welsh roots and entertaining the crowd with a cheery song called 'Die'.

"Wish I Could Have Seen Some Of" Acts

THESE NEW PURITANS (Far Out, Thursday), SNAPPED ANKLES (Walled Garden, Friday), DRY CLEANING (Rising, Friday), GWENNO (Far Out, Friday), ADWAITH (Mountain Stage, Saturday), FOUR TET (Mountain Stage, Saturday), AIDAN MOFFAT & RM HUBBERT (Walled Garden, Saturday), PEANESS (Rising, Saturday), JARVIS COCKER in conversation (Talking Shop, Saturday), TIM PRESLEY'S WHITE FENCE (Far Out, Sunday), JOHN TALABOT (Far Out, Sunday).

Best Food & Drink

Impossible to decide. I kicked off with my first ever Grazing Shed burger and never looked back, gorging on everything from glorious bacon sandwiches (well, smoked gammon in brioche buns) at the Hedonist cafe by the bus gate; first-rate fish and chips that provided the requisite pick-me-up when the effects of Friday night's 5.30 am bedtime were starting to kick in; Vietnamese steamed bao buns with sticky pork belly that were so good they was practically inhaled; a chilli and cheese dosa plus a bonus football-sized bhaji for an extra quid; and, last but certainly not least, a combination of French beef sausages and tartiflette that was tantamount to gout on a plate.

Add in a reasonable selection of drinks even at the standard bar tents and an enormous selection of ales in the courtyard, and it's fair to say that we ate, drank and were very merry indeed.

Roll on tomorrow's announcement and this August...

Monday, January 27, 2020

Rate reduction relief

The news that business rates for small and medium-sized grassroots music venues are to be halved gets this year's Independent Venue Week off to the best possible start. Rates for many city-centre venues have been rising sharply in recent years, and have been a major factor in some closing and many others struggling.

This latest development is both testimony to the hard work and persistence of the Music Venue Trust in putting pressure on the authorities and a welcome sign that perhaps the plight of grassroots music in the UK might finally be registering with those who have the power to do something about it.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

This way madness lies

Before yesterday evening, I didn't know much about Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain - but I knew enough that I had to see the screening at Chapter.

The Chilean/French auteur's previous film El Topo (also shown at Chapter last night, as part of a double bill) achieved notoriety through screenings at the Elgin Theater in New York in the early 1970s, and is credited as kicking off the avant-garde/countercultural midnight movie movement. Among the film's fans were John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who persuaded Beatles manager Allen Klein to bankroll a follow-up to the tune of £1 million.

Unleashed in 1973, The Holy Mountain caused a similar sensation as its predecessor, but a falling-out between Jodorowsky and Klein (who held the rights) meant that it was subsequently buried for more than 30 years, until a screening at Cannes in 2006. Friday saw the release of a 4K restoration - and Chapter were quick to put it on.

So what exactly is it about? Good question. Essentially, an Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself) leads a Thief (a Jesus-like figure) and seven other disciples to spiritual enlightenment via a series of personal challenges and a hike up the titular mountain. But The Holy Mountain is also a technicolour commentary/satire on religion, capitalism, mysticism, sex, politics, authoritarianism, charlatanism, excess, greed, hypocrisy, faith, the death of the hippie dream and much more. Often this commentary/satire is oblique, but sometimes it isn't - such as when the Alchemist is shown turning the Thief's shit into gold.

Jodorowsky being an arch provocateur, graphic nudity and violence are everywhere - as are animals: dogs fighting, exploding toads and chameleons, a baby hippo in a fountain, a tiger on a leash and a chimpanzee shown rowing a boat in circles and clambering up the mountain in knitted yellow stockings.

This restored version is a decadent, surrealist, genuinely hallucinogenic, visceral visual feast. It might often leave the viewer bewildered, but every single scene could be the source of an iconic and instantly recognisable still. The sound effects are perfect, capturing everything from the squelchy gloopiness of viscous deep-red blood to the wet flap of a pelican's feet on a hard floor, and the score uses sinister drone and cacophony to great effect.

While the film is relentlessly transgressive and undoubtedly not one for the squeamish or faint of heart (the eyeball removal scene turned my stomach and I lost count of how many male genitalia were chopped off), I should make clear that it's regularly laugh-out-loud funny - not least the scenes in which the disciples encounter a tourist bar halfway up the mountain and a woman tries to give a machine an orgasm.

All of this probably sounds utterly bizarre - so perhaps best to stop there and direct you to the trailer so you can take a look for yourself...

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Stark realities

Recently I read a tweet from someone suggesting that documentary photography is almost invariably "poverty porn" and challenging people to argue/prove otherwise. Grossly sweeping generalisation though it may be, the charge nevertheless got me thinking.

Martin Parr has been criticised on the grounds that he is a middle-class photographer with a patronising or superior attitude towards his working-class subjects - unfair though I think that is. He can't be alone in having faced that accusation. Isn't it potentially problematic for photographers to serve up images of deprivation and destitution for the appreciation of middle-class gallery-goers or Guardian readers? Should I be interrogating myself about what exactly it is that I enjoy or value in the pictures taken by Tish Murtha, for instance?

The answer to both questions is yes - though only to an extent. The truth of the matter is that documentary photography has performed, and continues to perform, a vital role in capturing the realities of life as it is lived and experienced by those less fortunate. Take Paul Sng's book Invisible Britain, for example, which exposes the damage wrought by years of austerity measures, or the work of J A Mortram, who has implicitly rejected the "poverty porn" charge in saying of his Small Town Inertia project that "I never meet anyone and think 'How can I make images of struggle or suffering?'" On the contrary, Mortram's focus is on giving a voice to the voiceless (which he also does through reproducing his subjects' own commentaries) and achieving positive ends - not only empowering the subjects and those who find themselves in a similar predicament but also helping others to "understand that there is great suffering happening on their doorstep": "my hope is that it will provoke a reaction of care, of empathy - and those emotions will fuel a desire for change, for solidarity with those around them and a more socially aware and conscious outlook on life."

In those terms, then, taking photos of deprivation is not something to be criticised; on the contrary, it's a matter of ethical responsibility. To hit back at the original complainant: surely it's better that such pictures are on prominent display, thereby making political, economic and social marginalisation harder to ignore, than that they were never taken in the first place?

Friday, January 24, 2020

Everything in its right place

Radiohead have long been sensitive to how they, their music and their image appear online (see, for instance, their scepticism and initial resistance towards allowing their songs to be streamed on Spotify), so the Radiohead Public Library unveiled this week makes perfect sense: an opportunity for them to be in control of their past, curators of their own virtual domain.

The site is a treasure trove of everything from live footage to posters and (from the early days) newsletters. As Louder Than War's Simon Tucker says, it's "a marriage-threatening level of content" - but he's helpfully given a few pointers as to where you might like to begin.

I think I might start by getting myself a new T-shirt. It's just a shame that (in my view) the best artwork is that which accompanied the worst album (The King Of Limbs, in case you hadn't guessed).

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Northern lights

Admittedly, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the authors shortlisted for a north-specific literary award would argue for the importance of a north-specific literary award. But it's nevertheless telling that all six writers up for this year's Portico Prize, the winner of which is due to be announced today, appear to agree with its CEO Thom Keep that the publishing industry remains depressingly and damagingly "London-centric".

Keep argues that this parallels the south's "fundamental disconnect with the north" in political terms - a point on which the prize hopefuls are also pretty much unanimous. It's not a divide that Adelle Stripe foresees being bridged any time soon: "We'll be used, rejected and forgotten about like we always have been. Central government is no friend of ours." The concept of a "northern powerhouse" is repeatedly given short shrift - Stripe talks of "empty promises", Jessica Andrews of "a clever piece of jargon rather than a true vehicle for change" and Glen James Brown of "a hollow bit of sloganeering on the part of a government that, for all its bluster about the north being able to take on the world, for all the stage-managed photo-ops of Gideon and Boris in their hard hats and hi-vis, has ripped the guts out of countless communities via a decade of austerity". Ray Robinson puts it the most poetically, though: "I think Westminster is just blowing rainbows up our arse."

Asked what characteristics might be considered to constitute the "spirit of the north", Andrews suggest "a joy in spite of everything" and Stripe "stubbornness, resilience and black humour". Graham Caveney also identifies resilience as key, alongside "conviviality, humour, community" and a number of "less heroic qualities" including "suspicion of change, nostalgia, sentimentality".

In those terms, Brown and Benjamin Myers exemplify their own northernness by expressing concern that the character of the north is changing for the worse. Both are justifiably baffled and dismayed by the fact that former mining towns and villages are now voting for the Tories, the lessons of the 1980s apparently forgotten. For Andrews, the atomisation of society has made it more imperative for "working-class communities come together in solidarity to fight for our hospitals, our schools, our jobs, our libraries and our hope" - though of course also more difficult for them to do so.

Perhaps most intriguingly, though, there is scepticism about the value of talking of a single monolithic "north". Brown claims that "there are as many norths as there are people living there", while Robinson ventures that "the north is so diverse in every aspect that the only thing that really unites us is a strong aversion to the south". Stripe agrees: "in reality it's a diverse area, with distinctive character and landscape from town to town. The nuance is often lost in translation." Hence the value of the Portico Prize in promoting works that offer not cliche and one-dimensional stereotype but the sort of sensitive, subtle, complex representations that the area and its inhabitants deserve.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Annual review

I make no apologies for repeating my view that Algiers' There Is No Year, released last Friday, is already a strong contender for the best album of 2020. Where I perhaps got it wrong, though, was in implying that its response to contemporary America is purely one of resigned nihilism; that's a factor, to be sure, but it's actually rather more complicated than that.

In an interview for the Guardian, bassist Ryan Mahan told Luke Turner: "If you're hopeful without pessimism, it's quite naive ... and if you're just pessimistic, it's fucking cynical." Frontman Franklin Fisher explained further: "The political situation is complex, so the ways of speaking about it must be complex because otherwise it's anachronistic, and that doesn't work for me."

He claimed, not without justification, that the record is in fact "redemptive and threatening and soothing and everything in between". Sadly, I suspect it's also probably too intense and challenging to achieve the commercial success that has thus far eluded them - such, unfortunately, is often the price of making genuinely impactful art.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Unfocused thinking

To coincide with his recent exhibition Ynyshir 25 Mile Radius at the Workers Gallery, Buzz's Rhonda Lee Reali had the pleasure of speaking with David Hurn. In the course of their conversation, he took particular pains to talk about money, which in his view is currently "going to the wrong places" within Wales in that it is being used to support neither Welsh photographers nor photography taken in the country.

Hurn did, however, single out Glenn Edwards' biannual Eye Festival in Aberyswyth and its sister event the Northern Eye Festival in Colwyn Bay for particular praise - just another thing to nudge me into heading over to the west coast in October for a line-up that already includes Martin Parr and Vanley Burke.

And what about Hurn's advice for budding documentary photographers? "Take lots and lots and lots of pictures" first and foremost, and by doing so gradually discover your own voice - and certainly don't think of it as "some esoteric art thing that's not for you".

Sadly, I wasn't able to get along to the Workers Gallery for the exhibition, but am eagerly awaiting the event in Hurn's honour being held on 15th February - billed as the last time he'll speak in public.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Support act

The annual Independent Venue Week (IVW) kicks off next Monday, its message as important as ever: grassroots music venues are vital and in the current climate need all the help they can get. Such support should come not only from music fans, whose footfall is essential on a day-to-day basis, but also from those with the power or capacity to make the environment in which the venues operate more conducive to long-term viability.

That's why one of IVW's ambassador, Anna Calvi, is absolutely right to argue that live music is undeservedly neglected in comparison with art forms perceived to be more high-brow, such as ballet and opera. That much was evident a couple of years ago, when Arts Council England decided to reject an application for just £500,000 from the Music Venue Trust but happily approved awarding a mind-boggling £96 million to the Royal Opera House. Time and again popular music is treated as an afterthought or overlooked by the powers that be - most recently, in my experience, at a Learned Society of Wales event where the panel featured representatives from the worlds of literature and TV and it was left to audience member Huw Stephens to argue that musicians are often more significant cultural ambassadors than authors and actors.

In a sorry coincidence, the value of continuing to fight for grassroots venues has been underlined close to home today. Cardiff lost BuffaloGwdihw and the Transport Club in 2019, so the news that 10 Feet Tall and Undertone also look doomed made for grim reading. Expressing their disgust that a planning application was submitted without any communication or consultation from the landlords or directors, the venue's "entire team ... including the management, bar staff and sound technicians" have decided to resign in protest.

That declaration was subsequently removed from the venue's website and an "official statement" has since been issued insisting on "business as usual" and criticising those who have resigned for not helping "this current crisis situation". But it's hard to see how it can come back from this - all of which makes a mockery of Cardiff's status as a "Music City" and the council's stated aim to "incorporate music into its city structure" in response to the Sound Diplomacy report. If they're genuinely serious about those ambitions, then 10 Feet Tall and Undertone should be protected and promoted rather than turned into yet another city-centre restaurant.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

False advertising

Twitter can so often be an awful cesspool, but without it I wouldn't have learned about (for instance) the bizarre phenomenon of Ghanaian film posters, created using old flour sacks stitched together as a canvas and painted by artists who may well not have seen the movies in question but who certainly had a thing for well-defined muscles and copious gore.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Homage to Catalonia

I'm not alone in eagerly awaiting the line-up for this year's Green Man - it's always reliably good - but, let's face it, it won't compare to the multitude of riches that Primavera has on offer.

Last year I was a bit of a curmudgeonly indie-rock gammon about the Barcelona bash's bill (especially as I wasn't even going), but subsequently came to my senses. This time around, there's probably less emphasis on pure pop and R&B and more on the kind of stuff that gets the likes of me instantly salivating, but, as the Guardian's Laura Snapes has pointed out, the organisers haven't compromised on their principles, ensuring the sort of gender balance to which most other festivals can only (and certainly should) aspire.

Take a handful of typical Primavera stalwarts (Dinosaur Jr, Yo La Tengo and of course Shellac), some big-name reformed bands (Pavement, Bauhaus, Bikini Kill, The Strokes, Jawbox), a smattering of legendary extremists (Einsturzende Neubauten, Napalm Death, Lightning Bolt) and plenty other of tasty acts (Black Country New Road, DIIV, black midi, Beck, Tropical Fuck Storm, Kim Gordon, The National, Les Savy Fav, Shame, Iggy Pop and Fontaines DC to name but a few) and you've got the perfect recipe for a festival that will have even those lucky enough to be there suffering from the fear of missing out.

Dad's Mammy's army

As if Trump in the White House, merrily ordering the assassination of high-level Iranian generals from afar, wasn't enough of a tinderbox. Now Brendan O'Carroll - that renowned master of refined, nuanced comedy - has shelved Mrs Brown's Boys to wade into the Arab-Israeli conflict with a sitcom called The Lebanese Outpost. Honestly - no joke. As fellow comedy writer Robert Popper put it on Twitter, "Daddy, how did World War 3 begin?"

Friday, January 17, 2020

Look to the future

As I wrote earlier this week, Birmingham's plan to ban through traffic from the city centre is certainly bold, but its success hinges on significant prior upgrades to the public transport network. Cardiff Council have since announced their own ten-year strategy (similarly prompted by concerns over air quality) and, while a proposed £2 congestion charge inevitably made the headlines, it also includes a raft of planned improvements to a public transport infrastructure that they readily concede is "creaking".

New rail stations, new tram-train lines, swifter bus routes, cheaper bus tickets and segregated bike lanes are all in the mix - as is the long-awaited new central bus station, though that won't open until 2023, eight years after its predecessor (in the ideal location, adjacent to Central Station) was demolished.

All laudable proposals, but the council must now deliver - and to do that, they need to commit considerable financial resources. The general environmental imperative is clear, as is the local justification, but the severe budgetary constraints within which all authorities are having to work mean that realising the plans will not be easy. All of the money raised by the congestion charge would be ploughed back into public transport - but the council are proposing to exempt those who live within the city (at least initially), an overly generous move that will deny them additional much-needed revenue.

It's also worth dwelling on their acknowledgement that the existing infrastructure is no longer fit for purpose, designed to cope with far fewer people than it currently does. The danger is that the council constantly play catch-up and that the ten-year strategy results in a network that only meets today's needs rather than tomorrow's. With the city continuing to expand east and west and new housing estates springing up all over, demand is only going to increase and the council must make sure that their plans are futureproofed.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Regional accent

There's been a lot of bashing of the Beeb recently - even as an ardent fan, I'd concede that they haven't done themselves any favours with their political coverage. But hopefully they'll get the credit they deserve for continuing to pursue an agenda of decentralisation.

BBC director general Tony Hall - speaking yesterday at BBC Wales' new headquarters in central Cardiff, appropriately enough - announced the latest phase of the strategy, which will involve a brand new tech hub in Newcastle, BBC Sounds moving to join other divisions at MediaCityUK in Salford and an expansion of the Bristol base.

Cynics might be inclined to suggest that Hall's talk of "inclusion" and "diversity of thinking" is merely gargling buzzwords, but it can surely only be a good thing for the country as well as the corporation itself that our national broadcaster's central operations are no longer concentrated almost exclusively in the capital.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The kids are alright

The first Lesson No. 1/Cosmic Carnage gig of the year was a cracker - not least because openers Haq123 are a bit special, even if they did leave me and many others questioning our parenting abilities. Machiavellian Art, Squalor Fan and Horrible Men also featured on a bill that was served up to a Friday night audience for free, such is the Moon's generosity of spirit at this bleak time of year.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

"Just jokes"?

Stewart Lee hasn't shied away from having a pop at Ricky Gervais before - a man who has previously sung his praises - but in his latest Guardian column the gloves really are off. Lee begins by attacking Jeremy Clarkson for the latest politically correct opinion he's expressed for money, but soon tires of effectively shooting fish in a barrel (and the danger of repeating himself) and moves to train his sights on Gervais.

Lee is generous enough to refer to his fellow comic's "pitch-perfect contribution to the groundbreaking Office sitcom two decades ago", but otherwise concentrates on drawing parallels between Gervais' now infamous Golden Globes speech and the way in which both Clarkson and Boris Johnson have made literal capital out of "exploiting the notion that they are lone voices of sanity against a politically correct snowflake cabal intent on silencing normal blokes like them". The trio, he argues, are "narcissistic populists, all clever enough to know better, who continue to court the attention of angry impotent people and take no personal responsibility for the consequences of their words, other mortals merely collateral damage, rabbits churned up in the combine harvester blades of their ongoing ambitions".

As with neo-Nazis backing Trump and Britain First urging its members to join the Tory party, Lee observes that what was most telling about Gervais' comments was the friends they earned him: hardened right-wingers all too eager to pile on political correctness, most notably Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, who (in the article's most memorable turn of phrase) "ripped the lid off the rotting kitchen food waste bin of her mind to retch forth some choice owl pellets of praise for Gervais' performative outrage", hailing him as the "Wokefinder General".

Lee's reaction is scathing and merciless: "In the Wokefinder General's mawkish sitcom After Life, the Wokefinder General's character considers suicide because his wife dies of a terminal illness. But in real life, the Wokefinder General has been praised by Sarah Vine, which is worse than losing a loved one prematurely."

Lee once wrote a whole routine with the deliberate intention of crafting a joke that Joe Pasquale couldn't steal (the resulting creation ended with the sentence "I vomited into the gaping anus of Christ"). His message to Gervais, clearly, is to stop performing material that people like Vine can lap up.

Monday, January 13, 2020


If Birmingham does follow through on a proposal to ban private cars from driving through the centre, then it'll be a continuation of the radical transformation of a city infamously remodelled for the sake of road traffic flow in the 1960s. Positive changes were already afoot when we lived there in the early noughties, when pedestrians were finally prioritised over motorists, walkability was the watchword and dank, badly lit underpasses were being replaced with above-ground crossings.

The Labour council's apparent commitment to cutting carbon emissions through decisive action is laudable. It would be a bitter pill for many, but one that needs to be swallowed - not least by Tory councillors like Robert Alden, who moan about their political rivals being "out of touch" when in reality they'd be precisely the opposite: in tune with those who realise the scale of the environmental crisis we face and the urgency with which it needs to be addressed.

However, the council's scheme will only work with substantial improvements to public transport infrastructure. The proposal has grabbed the headlines, and rightly so, but there is much preparatory work to be done - work that will involve significant investment - before it can be implemented and stand any chance of success.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

"The hands of God"

Not for the first time a major musician dies and my almost complete ignorance is exposed. As for many music fans of my generation (I imagine), I first became aware of Rush as the butt of a jokey line in Pavement's 'Stereo' - but the reaction to the death of drummer and principal lyricist Neil Peart suggests that I should have been paying more attention since then.

Dave Grohl has called him "a true giant in the history of rock and roll" and his Nirvana bandmate Krist Novoselic, Geezer Butler, Brian Wilson, Dave Lombardo, Chuck D and Billy Corgan (whose own band were also on the receiving end of Stephen Malkmus' mockery, of course) have also paid tribute, as well as members of Metallica and Kiss. John Stanier of Helmet and Battles has previously identified Peart as his drumming hero and inspiration, and named not one but two Rush albums among his favourites for a Quietus' Baker's Dozen feature in 2015.

Time for my listening habits to take a prog turn, perhaps?

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Indies rock

Brexit looming large on the horizon, an unfettered Tory majority in the House of Commons, tensions between the US and Iran threatening to explode into World War III, environmental apocalypse in Australia - but let's just grasp at one tiny ray of light in the gloom of early 2020: despite the general woes of high-street retailers and the market hegemony of Amazon, the number of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland has risen for the third year in succession.

Like record shops, they offer customers things that the major online retailers can't or don't: the opportunity to browse and leaf through potential purchases at leisure; personal recommendations from familiar, friendly faces; regular literary events that bring new publications to life, often involving the authors themselves; promotions of books about the local area, or by local writers.

Space restrictions can actually be a blessing rather than a curse because they demand a carefully curated selection of titles - though this can also be a deliberate strategy, as in the case of Round Table Books, which features in the article. (It's staggering that just 1 per cent of the 9,000-plus kids' books published in the UK in 2017 had BAME main characters - and encouraging that the likes of Round Table are doing what they can to change things.)

The trend also goes to show that, contrary to many predictions, the advent of e-readers hasn't rendered physical books obsolete - far from it. When it comes to a good page-turner, there's simply no substitute for actually being able to turn the page.

Perhaps you'll need to excuse my ignorance, but to my knowledge there are no independent shops selling new books in Cardiff city centre (Troutmark in Castle Arcade is great, but only deals in second-hand titles). By contrast, Abingdon - from where we moved - is a small town but boasts two: The Bookstore and the excellent Mostly Books. Surely there's scope for one in Wales' capital city?