Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Know Your Enemy

"We consider this award inappropriate and a betrayal to Save the Children’s founding principles and values. Management staff in the region were not communicated with nor consulted about the award and were caught by surprise with this decision."

Staff at Save The Children speak out in protest at the charity's decision to hand Tony Blair a "global legacy award" - and quite rightly, too.

Kids say the unfunniest things that are unintentionally funny

Bad Kids Jokes: when children's jokes go awry.

(Thanks to Abby for the link.)

Monday, November 24, 2014

An artist of the portrait

Who are you? That was the simple question posed by Grayson Perry in his recent three-part Channel 4 series - but it's one that provided some fascinating answers. Intent on exploring the complexities of identity, the Turner Prize winner focused first on modern individuals, then on modern families and finally on modern tribes, selecting for his portraits subjects whose (self-)identities were unstable, in transition, under threat or just unusual.

While determined to get to know his subjects in order to be able to reflect their personalities rather than just their outward appearances in his portraits, Perry acknowledged from the outset that this was ultimately an impossible task. Identities are fluid and, shifting, whereas portraiture inevitably has to freeze them in time to a greater or lesser extent. That said, for his portrait of the young woman who had come to identify with Islam, for instance, he was able to depict her ideological and spiritual journey away from the world of Western capitalism in a relatively dynamic way.

For other subjects, identity was not a matter of a personal voyage of discovery, but of something created, shaped and nurtured in relation to other people. The residents of a Jesus Army home were shown to rely on each other (a surrogate family) for strength and emotional support more than on any deity, while deaf activists also derived the strength of their resolution and defiance from being part of a tribe.

When it came to the portraits themselves, Perry's choices of medium and artistic reference points were thoughtfully and skilfully tailored to each individual case. Hence TV presenter and former Celebrity Big Brother winner Rylan Clark was depicted as a digital caricature, a post-modern reboot of the Elizabethan miniature (the piece was aptly titled The Earl Of Essex), and the Muslim convert's portrait took the form of a printed hijab.

The contrasts were stark and illuminating - between, for instance, Rylan, who was surprisingly self-aware about the precarious nature of the outward self he had deliberately constructed to shield his "real self" from the world, and Jaz, born a woman but undergoing gender reassignment, who was determined to modify his outward self to reflect who he felt he really was inside. Of all Perry's subjects, the latter was the closest to his heart, given his own transvestism.

Radically altering the actual nature of your body is the most extreme means of self-fashioning, but for some subjects what was most important was not changing physical appearances but perceptions of those appearances. While sympathetic to the plus-size Big Beautiful Women he spent time with, Perry nevertheless questioned quite how successful their mission could hope to be; while they may be able to redefine the way they think and feel about themselves, how others see them is largely beyond their control.

This, arguably, was the crux of the programme: identity is both internal and external, both something we project outwards and something that is projected onto us - whether we like it or not. Perry was acutely aware of the risk the portrait artist takes in presenting people with an image of themselves, but it was a risk he refused to shirk. Guardian reviewer Andrew Anthony was quite wrong to claim that "None of the artworks revealed anything that didn’t conform to their subject’s self-image"; on the contrary, in most cases the results were a synthesis of self-image and Perry's own perception. In some cases, this perception was positive - Jaz, for instance, was portrayed as a heroic figure - but in others, Perry was sharply critical. In deliberately smashing and reconstructing the pot portrait he made of the unlikeable and uncontrite Chris Huhne, he depicted the fragility and vulnerability that the disgraced former MP refused to show himself. Similarly, his cartoonish Technicolour portrait of Northern Irish Loyalists was a bold (and brave) mockery of their dourness and their affection for and affiliation to a version of Britishness that died out in the 1950s.

For the Loyalists, identity was something of which to be fiercely proud, something that needed to be staunchly defended. The most affecting of the subjects, a man suffering with dementia, was also experiencing a serious threat to his identity, but had no defence. Perry spoke eloquently and with feeling not only about how traumatic it must be to lose your memory and with it that "hinterland of experience" that gives us self-confidence, but also about how much carers' identities are fundamentally changed too, suppressed and subsumed as a result of constant devotion to their partners.

The series was a superb insight into the art of portraiture but more significantly the nature of humanity, and through it all Perry was excellent - sympathetic, adept at setting his interviewees at ease and teasing out candid revelations, not afraid to challenge or ask difficult questions. He and his great dirty laugh should present everything.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

With a little help from her (male) friends

I Can Be A Computer Engineer? I'm not sure about that, Barbie, given that you don't appear able to code or even reboot your computer, reliant on male colleagues to bail you out. Author Susan Marenco has offered a partial explanation, claiming she was asked to write a book about Barbie as a designer rather than an engineer, while custodians of the Barbie brand Mattel have failed to give anything approaching a convincing defence, arguing that the book "doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for". Feminist Hacker Barbie gives you the opportunity to rewrite the book with a less sexist slant.

(Thanks to Mhairi and Simon for the links.)

England expects

No sooner have Ride announced they're reforming than their Oxford contemporaries Radiohead have confirmed they're back in the studio. The brief is simple, chaps: make something much, much better than King Of Limbs. Don't let us down again...

Still, the major music-related local news story has to be that the Cheeky Girls kicked off "a 24-hour table football marathon for charity" in East Hendred on Wednesday. Presumably more money will have been raised if they pledged not to sing.

(Thanks to Richard for the latter link.)

Christmas cheer

I'm not normally one to endorse Christmas products, but I think it's fair enough to make an exception in the case of Modern Toss' fine selection of festive greetings cards and Firebox's melting Toht candle, the former to enable you to share the true meaning of Christmas (cynicism) and the latter to recreate the iconic scene from Raiders Of The Lost Ark in the comfort of your own home. Actually, you're too late for one of the candles - thanks to coverage by the likes of Time magazine, they've now sold out and won't be back in stock until next year.

(Thanks to Andy and Paul for the links.)

Ice cool

Personally speaking (for what it matters - I won't be able to go anyway) the bill for next year's ATP Iceland may have got off to a shaky start with the announcement that Belle & Sebastian will be headlining, but is now shaping up nicely with the recent additions of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mudhoney, Loop and Tall Firs. Particularly notable are the inclusions of Deafheaven and Iceage, which suggests that my fear that ATP might struggle to win back bands' trust following the late cancellation of Jabberwocky in August has (thankfully) proven unfounded.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Politics and music: never the twain should meet?

It's at times like these that I question whether I was right to defend the right of musicians to dabble in politics.

First came the 2014 reboot of Band Aid's 'Do They Know It's Christmas?', complete with patronising, clumsy and crassly generalising lyrics. While the end - raising vital funds to combat the spread of Ebola in West Africa - justifies the means (a cornerstone of my argument in that Art Of Noise debate), it's worth considering Geldof's comment that "It has nothing to do with whether you like the record or not or whether you approve of the artists" - if that's the case, why not just donate direct to charity rather than inflating the egos of those taking part?

And then there was Myleene Klass, pop star turned TV presenter, supposedly wiping the floor with Ed Miliband on ITV's The Agenda over Labour's plans to introduce a mansion tax. Miliband often looks somewhat dumbstruck, but he could be forgiven for being flummoxed in this instance, given he was being lectured by someone claiming to speak on behalf of ordinary "grannies". Polly Toynbee's commentary in the Guardian nails it: "How quickly wealth loses touch, bestowing the sense of indignant entitlement Klass displayed as she claimed you could only buy 'a garage' for £2m in London. Polite Miliband may have been stumped about where to begin a riposte, but on this issue most people see the obscene spectacle of London property wealth – and rightly think the rich should pay a bit more."

Which brings me, finally, to the song Nickelback have written in response to the riots in Ferguson. Sod the defence, I'm voting for the prosecution.

(Thanks to Danny for the final link.)

The odd couples

What is it with temperamental egomaniac guitarists buddying up with drummers who inhabit different musical universes? I'm not sure who makes the weirder combo: J Spaceman (aka Spiritualized's Jason Pierce) and Kid Millions of Oneida (amongst others), playing together in Shoreditch next month, or Billy Corgan and Rage Against The Machine's Brad Wilk, united in the latest incarnation of The Smashing Pumpkins as they prepare to release ninth studio album Monuments To An Elegy, which features Tommy Lee behind the kit.

It's telling that two drummers teaming up make less of an odd pairing - the drummers in question being Lightning Bolt's Brian Chippendale and Deerhoof's Greg Saunier, two of the very best in the business.

The clothes show

A TV presenter wearing the same suit for a whole year to make a point about the way women are constantly judged on their appearance? I like his style.

(Thanks to Mhairi for the link.)

Character building

The YouGov Profiler is strangely addictive. Apparently, typical Newcastle fans are left-leaning, Mirror-reading fans of Shaggy. Well, one out of three ain't bad.

(Thanks to Abbie for the link.)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Silencing the critics

The news story that a couple were fined for leaving a negative review of a hotel on TripAdvisor has recently come to national prominence, but less widely reported was the fact that this summer a French blogger was also fined for writing a post that was critical of a restaurant. The latter case was more disturbing, as the fine was imposed by a judge; in the former case, the "fine" (actually money deducted from the couple's credit card) resulted from a rogue policy included in the small print of the booking document - a policy that has since been scrapped under pressure from the authorities, with the couple refunded.

It begs the question as to what is and is not acceptable in terms of reviews. Some reviewers can be deliberately malicious - as seems to have been the case for novelist Kathleen Hale, who unwisely got sucked into confronting her online abuser - but, generally speaking, reviews have to be seen as fair comment and reviewers shouldn't be threatened, intimidated, punished or silenced for daring to voice a critical opinion. If writing critical commentaries were to be outlawed, sites like TripAdvisor would be instantly rendered useless - and this very blog would soon grind to a halt. While I can understand the frustration of restaurant proprietors and hotel managers (and musicians, directors, comedians, authors, artists etc) who are irritated by negative reviews featuring prominently in Google searches, upholding the right of people to comment freely is more important.

The Ride of your life?

It's nearly a year ago now that Jen and I were out for a birthday meal at the Magdalen Arms in Oxford only to find the former members of Ride and their manager conducting a business meeting at the next table. They must have finally decided the bank balance had dipped too low, as they've just announced a reunion and accompanying 2015 tour, including appearances at Primavera and Field Day.

In an interview with Drowned In Sound, Mark Gardener of course never mentions money, claiming it's all to do with "unfinished sonic business". It's a bit curious, then, that they're only set to play old material, though he suggests that new songs are pretty much an inevitability when the four of them reunite in a studio.

I shouldn't be too cynical - I'm one of those whom Ride passed by the first time around, and if Gardener is sufficiently admired by Thurston Moore to be asked to be his tour support, then my defences are already down.

On the subject of legendary bands making a comeback, you sense that Faith No More are determined to make an impact, given the choice of title for their new single and the press image released to accompany it.

Cold discomfort

Talk about suffering for your art. There are many bands upon whom I'd wish getting trapped on board their tour bus in a snowstorm for more than 50 hours, but Interpol aren't one of them. Hopefully Paul Banks has taken the unexpected downtime to try writing some decent lyrics.

Ruff justice

Elizabethan superheroes, courtesy of Sacha Goldberger. Why? Doesn't matter.

(Thanks to Matt for the link.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Music history in the making

With Foo Fighters back on the radar with new album Sonic Highways and the accompanying series of short documentaries on each of the album's featured cities, it seems an appropriate time to finally get round to reviewing Dave Grohl's first directorial outing.

Sound City is the tale of the studio of that name in LA where Grohl spent 16 days in May and June 1991 that he claims quite literally changed his life. He's not wrong - the period of time in question saw the recording of Nevermind.

The studio itself was an unprepossessing building, clouded in the stink of the nearby Budweiser factory, short on glitz and glamour if not outright down at heel. One interviewee describes it as being the sort of place where you could take a piss in the corner and no one would bat an eyelid. Nevertheless, it became known as somewhere that magic happened.

Sound City had its first heyday thanks to the likes of Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty, before getting taken over by dodgy metal outfits Dio, Ratt and Saxon in the 1980s. Nirvana's decision to use the studio for their major label debut sparked its renaissance, with Rage Against The Machine among the many bands to choose to record there on the strength of the way Nevermind turned out. There probably aren't many studios that could claim to have played host to everyone from Slipknot, Slayer and Metallica to Barry Manilow and Bill Cosby.

The film is in large part a love letter to the studio's kit, a fetishisation of the legendary Neve recording desk, though it is of course also an ode to the people who combined to make it such a special venue. Grohl's chosen interviewees prove to be a fund of entertaining anecdotes; we learn, for instance, that Rick Springfield's dog once threatened to bite Pat Benetar's guitarist Nick Giraldo in the groin if he fucked up a song. The same mutt regularly bit chunks out of the soundproof cladding in Studio A.

The studio's fortunes waxed and waned until it was finally put out of business three years ago by the demand for digital. But that wasn't quite the end of the story - for either the recording desk or the film. When the studio closed its doors for the last time, Grohl stepped in to salvage the enormous Neve, installing it in his own Studio 606. What better way to pay tribute to its former home than to round up some Sound City alumni and put it to productive use recording some new music?

The cast of characters Grohl is able to corral to perform is impressive, and while the second half of the film is somewhat indulgent and the recorded results are decidedly mixed (the collaboration between Grohl and Sound City regulars Josh Homme and Trent Reznor, 'Mantra', was the only song that really grabbed me), it's nevertheless entertaining to watch the creative interplay between different musicians in a studio environment.

And then there's Paul McCartney, who never recorded at Sound City but whom Grohl still manages to rope in. The Grammy-winning 'Cut Me Some Slack' may be pretty execrable (particularly lyrically), but the kid-in-a-sweet-shop enthusiasm and shit-eating grins of Grohl and former Nirvana bandmates Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear, incredulous at playing with their hero, mean that all is forgiven.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Know Your Enemy

"Exploiting the first world war for commercial gain is tasteless. This, however, is not what disturbs me most. The really upsetting details are the stunning shot of the robin on the wire, the actors’ trembles as they cautiously emerge from the trenches, half expecting a sniper’s bullet, the flicker of understanding in the eyes as the young soldiers reach into their pockets at the end. The film-makers here have done something to the first world war which is perhaps the most dangerous and disrespectful act of all: they have made it beautiful."

The Guardian's Ally Fogg nails what's most offensive about the Sainsbury's ad.

Since when did the Christmas TV ad become such a culturally significant phenomenon? So significant that they're fawned over on social media by people who really should know better (ie acquaintances of mine), and that Waitrose can send an email offering a sneak preview of their effort on the assumption - nay, secure in the knowledge - that many customers will be grateful for the opportunity. It's mid-November, and already I'm muttering "Bah humbug" on a daily basis...

(Thanks to Jen for the link.)


Since when did "vape" become a common word?! Its ascendance in popularity - to the extent that it's just been named Word Of The Year by Oxford Dictionaries - has completely passed me by. "Slacktivism", on the other hand, would certainly have been worthy of the award. As for "indyref", is that not more of a hashtag term that became popular in very specific circumstances and is destined to disappear?

Rival dictionaries Chambers and Collins have chosen "overshare" and "photobomb" respectively. Surely the latter is so 2012?

Righting the wrongs of the right

If you can't beat 'em, get 'em to inadvertently raise money for a cause dedicated to their demise. That was the cunning strategy used by the German town of Wunsiedel, who turned an annual neo-Nazi rally into a fundraising event for EXIT-Deutschland, a charity set up to assist neo-Nazis to leave their groups behind.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Quote of the day

"If you wanted to do something different, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do … then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful – we were told ­– for all kinds of jobs. Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects."

When Michael Gove was deposed as Education Secretary, I sounded a note of caution amid the celebrations - there seemed to be little indication that his replacement Nicky Morgan would be any improvement. And, sure enough, here she is, writing off both a whole swathe of academic subjects and those who choose to study them - essentially dismissing the value of culture. She would do well to realise that not everyone is as narrow-mindedly careerist as politicians.

Don't mix your drinks

Newcastle Brown Ale and Strongbow?! No, no, no, no, NO. Stop it now, Americans. If you were mixing the Geordie national beverage with flat scrumpy rather than fizzy synthetic piss, then I might look on your new cocktail with slightly less disapproval.

(Thanks to Mhairi for the link.)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Back to school

Too cool for school? Not David Mitchell, who on Thursday evening found himself back at his alma mater Abingdon School, on the stage of the Amey Theatre where he cut his acting teeth in The Crucible and other productions.

The comedian/actor/writer/all-round good egg was appearing in conversation with Mark Thornton of local indie shop Mostly Books, with the focus predominantly on his new book Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse, a selected collection of his Observer columns. The idea was first pitched to him two or three years ago, he said, but he decided to delay it so as to have more columns to choose from. Dating back to 2008, the featured articles are set against the backdrop of the credit crunch and subsequent slow recovery. (I don't suppose I was the only person to be amused at the fact that he was being asked questions about the economy by someone who, in both appearance and mannerisms, bears a striking resemblance to the BBC's Robert Peston.)

As someone who needs deadlines to get things done, writing a weekly column appeals to Mitchell - though even then, in classic student style, he admitted he still finds himself frantically flicking through the papers in search of ideas each deadline day and then procrastinating for hours once his chosen topic has had the official editorial thumbs-up. As a member of the school debating society, he used to enjoy endorsing polarised opinions, but his Observer articles tend to steer a path between diametrically opposed positions, suggesting that in fact neither is right. However, this might partly be because he's aware that adopting a mock-extreme attitude in print often doesn't come across in the same way it does in a TV studio in front of a live audience, when ranting (to use a slightly loaded term) helps him to get at the kernel of humour in a given topic.

Over the course of the hour and a quarter, during which audience members got the opportunity to ask questions, the talk covered everything from his attitude to the internet (ambivalent at best) and independent schools (despite our "august surroundings", Mitchell argued that exorbitant price hikes mean such schools should probably lose their charitable status) to the stylistic genius of Peep Show (he was right in saying that, in order to be both believable and funny, Mark Corrigan's character needs the inner monologue).

We learned that he'd love to work with Michael Palin (though the suggestion of a cameo role in Peep Show as a Costa barista was ruled out), that he hates Madame Tussauds with a passion, that he hadn't brought his "travelling dressing gown" with him (on account of the fact that he was catching a late train back to London after the event) and that the one major source of disagreement between himself and Victoria Coren is science fiction (apparently she dismisses it out of hand despite being partial to nerds in any other context, though she did recently sit through an episode of Doctor Who).

Having earlier reflected on the unpalatability of saying you want to be an actor or a comic (his other childhood ambitions included becoming Prime Minister or a wizard), Mitchell concluded by advising the school-age members of the audience not to think they couldn't make a living doing something they enjoy. Sage advice - and advice that we were all grateful that he himself has lived by.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Spotify on the spot

I wonder how annoyed Thom Yorke is at the fact that his stand against Spotify drew relatively little reaction last year, whereas Taylor Swift's decision to remove all of her music from the site prompted CEO Daniel Ek into hasty action, posting a lengthy defence of their business model. With YouTube's new subscription service about to be launched, the reason for Spotify's desperation to ensure damage limitation is obvious.

While Ek's argument does seem fairly cogent, Swift's record label have hit back by disputing the figures. What's more, just because Spotify remunerates (or claims to remunerate) artists better than radio and other streaming services doesn't necessarily mean their rates are fair - just that they're not quite as outrageously stingy.

(Near-)perfect Gentlemen

Hats off to Pitchfork's Stephen Deusner for making me revisit The Afghan Whigs' masterpiece Gentlemen, the bleak break-up record that was the prime reason I was so excited about seeing the reformed band at Primavera a couple of years back. The 21st birthday edition Deusner reviews might be worth getting, if only for the bonus material giving a greater sense of the jazz and Motown influences - influences that remained largely in the background but that only really came to the fore with 1965.

Temple of doom fun

With its extensive cave network, what's beneath the ground in Nottingham is as intriguing as what's above it. That's certainly true of the Malt Cross, one of the jewels in the city's crown - now reopened following the completion of extensive restoration and renovation work that bordered on becoming an archaeological dig, revealing secret rooms and hidden passageways. This LeftLion article tracing the former music hall's eventful history makes it sound as though, if you visit, you might bump into Indiana Jones fleeing a massive rolling boulder.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dulce et decorum est

Amidst all the pomp and ceremony surrounding the commemoration of victims of combat during the First World War, spare a thought for the 306 British soldiers who died at the hands of their comrades, executed for "cowardice" - many of whom were underage or suffering the effects of shellshock - and the conscientious objectors who themselves showed bravery in maintaining the courage of their convictions.

(Thanks to Dave for the first link.)

Sight specific

Frozen By Sight, the new album from old chums Paul Smith of Maximo Park and Peter Brewis of Field Music, may take the listener all over the globe - everywhere from the US to Barcelona to Budapest - but it's nice to see it starting in Newcastle, with a stroll down Pilgrim Street and a moment's contemplation of the old Odeon building. Stylistically, it sounds far closer to Field Music's usual experimental string-driven contemplative pop than to Maximo Park's sharp-suited indie.

On the subject of collaborations, here are Savages and Bo Ningen talking about their own project Words To The Blind, "a 37-minute 'simultaneous sonic poem' inspired by the dadaist movement of 1916". Pretentious? Perhaps. But given the personnel involved, it's likely to be a triumph.

Good Morning

Hot on the heels of ITV's welcome decision to cancel Dapper Laughs' show (though perhaps they should be grilled on how it was commissioned in the first place) comes more good news for comedy: Julia Davis is set to return with a new sitcom delving into the world of breakfast TV, Morning Has Broken. It'll be great to have her back, especially on terrestrial TV screens, given that her last series Hunderby aired on Sky Atlantic.

(Thanks to Neil for the link.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Quote of the day

"Immigration has been and is part of the solution to the skills shortages faced by the UK but it is clear that there is a disconnect between the experiences of businesses and the public at large. In some areas, concerns about immigration have become a substitute for frustrations with living standards. Business has a vital role to play in ensuring the debate is based on the facts whilst recognising the genuine concerns of the public around immigration."

Hats off to CBI president Sir Mike Rake for having a subtle jab at the small-mindedness of UKIP and their supporters while speaking at his organisation's conference - small-mindness that flies in the face of the economic facts. Hopefully David Cameron (also in attendance) was taking note.

Ghost world

Times may move on and buildings may change their use, but some have their pasts inscribed on their exteriors like fading tattoos.

(Thanks to Mike for the link.)