Saturday, April 04, 2020

Window frame

It's often said that the secret of good portrait photography is a close and intimate relationship between subject and snapper. In this respect, Chiara Mac Call's latest project is unusual, in that in the current circumstances physical intimacy (at least) is impossible. Her portraits of people in lockdown - shot through windows and doors - emphasise both interpersonal distance and the value of photography as a communicative act.

Friday, April 03, 2020

Remote working

It was a grim irony that 1st April brought the news that the UK comedy circuit desperately didn't want to hear: this year's Edinburgh Festival has been cancelled. The impact of the cancellation, and of the coronavirus pandemic generally, on up-and-coming talent looking for a break will be significant. Even before the Fringe announcement, a number of well-established comedians, including Richard Herring, Sara Pascoe, Lee Mac, Robert Webb and Dawn French, had been prompted to contribute to a crowdfunding pot in recognition of the fact that the long-term health of the industry depends on fresh new voices.

This British Comedy Guide article summarises much of the fall-out, as well as detailing some of the ways in which comedians are keeping themselves busy: Alex Horne adapting Taskmaster for lockdown; Go Faster Stripe and Mark Thomas teaming up to appeal for donations to the Trussell Trust in return for free downloads; the Stay At Home Festival, a fundraiser coordinated by Robin Ince and the Cosmic Shambles Network (the live episode of Ed Gamble and James Acaster's Off Menu podcast, with Richard Herring as the guest, was a shambolic delight). Closer to home, Mike Bubbins, Elis James and Steff Garrero have teamed up to establish the Socially Distant Sports Bar.

For some comedians, though, the present situation is pretty much business as usual because they already do much of their work online. Take Alistair Green, for example, a seasoned comedy writer but someone who is now really making a name for himself with character comedy short-form videos filmed on his phone. Or Michael Spicer, whose Man Next Door series won him Chortle's Internet Award for 2020. Spicer noted that his victory was "proof that messing around at home is a lifestyle worth embracing" - it's now a lifestyle we're all having to embrace, and one that might throw up a few new social media comedy heroes.

If nothing else, coronavirus lockdown has already given us Matt Lucas revisiting George Dawes' duet with a baked potato and revealed the identity of Train Guy's Geoff Linton - yeah, THE Geoff Linton...

Thursday, April 02, 2020

Taking centre stage

In the 11 long years since I saw Sky Larkin - touring in support of their modestly great first LP The Golden Spike at the Bullingdon in Oxford with a youthfully exuberant Pulled Apart By Horses in tow - Katie Harkin has certainly kept herself busy, mainly by playing other people's songs, not least with a dream assignment performing as part of Sleater-Kinney's live show. It's no surprise that her solo debut, which I had the pleasure of reviewing for Buzz, instantly charms with its smart, subtle indie rock.

Other featured albums in April's round-up include new releases from Pearl Jam, The Orb, The Necks and Porridge Radio. Milk Teeth's debut and Less Of Everything by Es are certainly ones I'll be checking out.

People and place

Some photographers prefer to shoot unpopulated natural landscapes; for others, a fascination with people is the primary motivation for taking pictures. What I like about these images, displayed at a pop-up exhibition in London back in December, is that the four photographers - Nicola Muirhead, Celine Marchbank, Lynda Laird and Hanna-Katrina Jedrosz, who have formed a collective called Isle - all clearly have a strong sense of place but also of the human within, behind and beyond it, even if there are no actual people to be seen.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Relationship problems

Major businesses and industries can be the making of a city or town - but they can also be the breaking of them if they spiral into decline. This BBC article by Jenny Norton is much more than simply a gallery of ruin porn photos of Kadykchan. It explores how and why the remote Russian outpost went from being a relatively vibrant place to a completely abandoned ghost town in the space of little more than two decades, and what it has meant to those who made a life there.

Kadykchan's sorry story is compared and contrasted with that of Kirovsk, another Russian town a mere eight time zones away, which has faced similar problems but has clung on, still dependent on a single industrial giant but trying to diversify and find new and alternative sources of sustenance.

Both Kadykchan and Kirovsk might be in Russia, but, as Norton points out, monotowns can be found all over the world. Detroit is of course a glaring example, its overreliance on the car industry the cause of its rapid development and disastrous downfall, and you have to wonder what might happen in a place like Sunderland if Nissan were to choose to pull out as a result of Brexit. The manufacturer is continuing to invest for now, at least - but question marks remain over the long-term future of the factory that is a significant generator of local jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Bored? Games!

What's an incorrigible reviewer to do when all gig venues are silent, all restaurants and cafes closed, all theatres and cinemas shuttered? Start writing about board games. Both Kingdomino and Deep Sea Adventure come highly recommended as entertaining ways of whiling away lockdown days and nights.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Career retrospective

I doubt any of the guests on the previous 88 episodes of music mag Loud And Quiet's Midnight Chats podcast made a point of saying that they've never thought of themselves as a musician, but then the guest on the 89th, Kim Gordon, is rather unique. With a career that has taken in everything from visual art and fashion to film and dance as well as Sonic Youth, Body/Head and now a solo LP (last year's No Home Record), it's a wonder that interviewer Stuart Stubbs somehow managed to cover it all in under 45 minutes.

Indeed, all of that and more: the conversation also ranged over her thoughts on poetry and Parasite, her experience of doorstep canvassing for Bernie Sanders, her deliberate avoidance of technique, how she took inspiration from the young cheerleaders starring in Netflix docuseries Cheer for working with her new band, and the fact that sometimes she fantasises about being a plumber and "doing something concrete".

If you were to identify a pull-out quote, it would have to be Gordon's suggestion that she regrets staying so long in Sonic Youth, "a machine that's hard to get out of". She frames the band's demise positively, as finally giving her the time, freedom and impetus to fully pursue her other creative interests. It's a shame to hear her imply that life in the group was stifling - but, as a Sonic Youth devotee, I must admit to being grateful that they held firm for so long, not least because their 2009 swansong The Eternal is, to my mind, the best record they had released since Washing Machine in 1995.

The talk about Gordon's book Girl In A Band (the reaction to which amazed her) shamed me into remembering that it's still in my to-read pile. A previous episode of Midnight Chats featuring The Slits' Viv Albertine (alluded to by Stubbs in the course of his conversation with Gordon) finally nudged me into reading her own memoir Clothes Music Boys - a wonderful read, and one that should get a review here before too long.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Finer dining

Since Jay Rayner savaged the quality and variety of decent dining options in Cardiff in a positive review of the Classroom in 2016, the city's food scene has definitely taken significant steps in the right direction. So it's good to hear that while he stands by the validity of his comments at that time, he's also aware that "a bunch of places have opened since then" and is fully intending to pick one or two to review when he comes back in the autumn for a rearranged performance of his show My Last Supper at the Sherman Theatre.

In addition to telling Buzz's Elin Evans about his hatred of "frivolities which have nothing to do with the food" and not having a specific dish by which to compare and judge different restaurants, Rayner declares his favourite culinary fad to be a very contemporary one: "The small-scaled independent restaurant, with a short, changing menu, is a glorious thing." With that in mind, you'd assume and hope that Heaneys, Nook and Milkwood could all expect a visit when he's next in town.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Live in the living room

If, like me, you're a live music addict despairing at the sight/thought of not knowing when you'll next see the inside of a gig venue, then there are some consolations.

Take, for example, this list of ten great concerts to watch on YouTube, compiled by Jeff Terich of Treble and featuring Nick Cave, The Cure, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Miles Davis and Judas Priest. As it's all free, for each concert you watch, why not bung one of your favourite local venues a bit of cash to help them through the shutdown? The Moon and Clwb are getting my money.

That said, concerts haven't stopped completely - they've just gone online. As the Quietus' JR Moores quipped in a superb recent round-up review of virtual performances by the likes of Blanck Mass and Neil Young, "even gig reviewers now have to work from home". Moores suggests that - personally speaking, at least - the current situation is a case of being careful what you wish for, citing a particularly disagreeable experience at a Damned gig. But there are certainly upsides: "You don't have to squeeze through a sea of bloated hoodies to nip to the toilet and back. No one is standing in front of you filming the entire set for their YouTube channel because it basically already is one. The drinks are cheaper. It's much easier than it would usually be to watch a band while eating a plateful of sloppy lamb ragout off your lap. You know exactly who's to blame for the garlicky fart smell that's working its way through the room. Before you attend, you don't have to worry about what you're going to wear to the gig anymore. A novelty onesie in the shape of your favourite root vegetable? A tatty pair of Red Dwarf pyjamas? Just your underwear? A T-shirt bearing the name of the band that you are watching at that particular moment? Be as uncool as you like, people, nobody's judging you anymore." Well, when you put it like that, suddenly it doesn't seem quite so bad.

If it's the communal experience rather than the live performance element that you're missing, though, then The Charlatans' Tim Burgess is organising album listening parties on Twitter. Tune in using the hashtag #TimsListeningParty, press play in sync and look out for behind-the-songs stories and gossip from those involved in the particular record's making. Don't be put off by the NME's suggestion that the parties feature "some of Britpop's finest" - sure, Parklife and Definitely Maybe have been and gone, but so has Ride's Going Blank Again, and Mogwai's Come On Die Young is lined up for April.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Wasted talent?

A quarter of a century after his death, how is Peter Cook perceived? The Guardian's Ryan Gilbey spoke to Cookophiles and fellow comics Ade Edmondson, Eddie Izzard and Lucy Porter about the genius and influential legacy of a man about whom the consensus was - and arguably still is - that he peaked early and ended up drunk, washed up and phoning it in.

I wasn't even born when Cook was enjoying what is widely considered to be his heyday, but my first encounter with him via Why Bother?, his early-90s improvised interviews with Chris Morris that found him in character as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, had me doubting the received wisdom - clearly he never lost his ability to freewheel to brilliant effect.

I later enjoyed his collected writings (Tragically, I Was An Only Twin) and the BBC's dramatisation Not Only But Always, but have never really investigated further. Perhaps now's the time. But where to start? Not Only ... But Also? Derek And Clive?

Thursday, March 26, 2020

"A relentless techno-punk onslaught"

When the Quietus put out the call for pitches on Primal Scream's XTRMNTR to mark the twentieth anniversary of the album's release, you just knew the resulting article was going to be worth reading. And sure enough, Lee Brackstone's assessment is an eminently quotable and spot-on assessment of "an album of such ferocity, anger and intuitive intelligence that it served as a kind of enema for the decade just past".

The record is, he argues, "rock & roll as apocalypse not salvation"; "an album of rigorous and remorseless intensity" with a "groove and aesthetic" that is "a Taliban cut-up of protest lyrics, millennial fury and the horror of a crippled, nihilistic drug comedown". All very true (and why I'm so fond of it) - and I also wholeheartedly agree with the suggestion that Kevin Shields' "aura of influence" was critical for the overall sound and impact.

What I don't buy, though, is Brackstone's evaluation of the rest of Primal Scream's LPs and XTRMNTR's place in their back catalogue. For a start, I'm no fan of Screamadelica, having been forced to endure it for Sounding Bored discussion purposes. "Now fashionably dismissed by the holier-than-hip crowd" it may be, but its "canonical" status has nothing to do with my dislike for its loose, simian swagger.

What's more, Screamadelica and XTRMNTR might be seen as bookends for the 90s, as "neat definers of what was happening in Britain's pre-millennial pop culture", as they are in Brackstone's thesis, but surely you can't (rightly) laud the sentiment behind 'Kill All Hippies' and ignore the fact that Bobby Gillespie and co were themselves hippies a decade earlier? Similarly, while XTRMNTR was in many ways "an enema for the decade just past", surely you have to acknowledge that by releasing the bloated, tediously rockist Give Out But Don't Give Up as a follow-up to Screamadelica, Primal Scream were partially responsible for ensuring that such an enema was necessary?

Vanishing Point is quite good, but XTRMNTR remains the only album of theirs that I genuinely love. It never fails to astonish me how they went from that and an electrifying performance at Leeds in 2000, to Evil Heat and an awful showing at the same festival just three years later. Credit to them for never standing still and continually seeking to do something different from album to album, I guess - but, for me, XTRMNTR stands out a mile as the one time they've actually led the way rather than followed fashion and hopped on the nearest bandwagon.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Divine retribution

In a 2003 piece in the Spectator, Theodore Dalrymple aka Anthony Malcolm Daniels lived up to his pseudonym - that of a pompous, priggish Victorian patrician - by condemning D B C Pierre's Vernon God Little in no uncertain terms as "a work of unutterably tedious nastiness and vulgarity, written by a man with no discernible literary talent whose vulgarity of mind was deep and thoroughgoing". Such denunciations only ever succeed in making the book in question - in this case, that year's Booker Prize winner - an even more appealing prospect. Sure enough, it proved to be superb company on my recent trip to the US, which may not have been to Martirio - the novel's "barbecue sauce capital of Central Texas" - but nevertheless involved plenty of licking barbecue sauce off fingers.

Martirio - an incestuous pressure cooker of a place where there only seem to be a handful of surnames and everyone knows everyone else's business - is home to the titular Vernon, a Holden Caulfield raised on junk food and trash TV by a mom preoccupied with keeping up appearances for her friends and neighbours. A tragic hero for our times, bemused by the world and obsessed with an unobtainable girl, he finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into trouble with the law through little to no fault of his own. The question is: will he let the bastards grind him down?

Vernon is a gem of a comic creation, though in truth the novel is teeming with fantastic fleshy caricatures brought to life through visceral, frequently nauseating imagery that evokes smells as well as sights. Pierre's gift for offbeat dialogue is also readily apparent, and often the source of the comedy.

What starts out as a warts-'n'-all portrait of small-town America shape-shifts into a comic caper and then into a courtroom drama and even a suspenseful thriller, the narrative propelled by judiciously timed developments and revelations and peppered by Vernon's various "learnings" along the way. It's a mediation on fate, victimisation and vengeance. It's a savage Black Mirror-esque indictment of the justice system and the muscle of corporations and television within contemporary American society and culture. And it's a hilarious tale of a loser patsy with irritable bowels. However you want to read it, Vernon God Little is a triumph.

Some aspects made me think of Napoleon Dynamite and the portrayal of awkward teenhood in Nowheresville, USA; the later sections put me in mind of The Shawshank Redemption. Overall, though, it reads like glaringly obvious source material for a Coen brothers movie, a Texan cousin of Fargo - especially given that nothing seems to have come of a proposed Werner Herzog adaptation, mooted back in 2012. Ethan, Joel - the ball's in your court.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"I like to think we do some good"

Live, in-the-flesh gigs fast feel like they're becoming a thing of the distant past, and after bunging the Moon's fundraiser some cash this evening I don't really want to think too much about the untold damage that coronavirus will be doing to an already fragile ecosystem. So instead let's celebrate what grassroots venues can be and can mean to individuals and the communities of which they're a part - the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds being a prime example.

I've never been before but Dave Simpson's profile of the place, published in the Guardian last month, only makes me more desperate to visit. Not only does it put on great gigs with stupendous consistency, it's also evidently beloved by those who work there and frequent its bars. You have to admire Nathan Clark's commitment to the cause - and to his father's legacy.

Oh to have been at that Monotonix gig...

Monday, March 23, 2020

Market value

It might have been unimaginable even fairly recently, but Cardiff Central Market is fast becoming a foodie honeypot. By all means give relative newcomers Franks, Fwrnes and Noglu a try, but Thai Asian Delish has been there longer than most and - as I argued in a recent Buzz review - certainly shouldn't be overlooked.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Away from the pulsebeat

One person unlikely to be having too much difficulty with social distancing is John Maher. The former-Buzzcocks-drummer-turned-photographer has been living on the Isle of Harris since 2002.

His pictures showcasing the beauty of the Western Isles are frequently stunning - and, for anyone currently confined to the house and garden, offer very welcome escapist relief.

The images in the Nobody's Home series, depicting houses left to decay and collapse, are also poignant, symbolic of rural depopulation and the cruel passage of time - though they've had a positive impact, inspiring plans for renovation plans.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Special delivery

A copy of Ben Myers' new novel The Offing was already on my shopping list, and when he tweeted that he'd left signed copies at the bookshop of Borders business the Mainstreet Trading Company, the appropriate course of action seemed obvious: a way of simultaneously supporting a small-scale independent no doubt facing an uncertain future in the current climate and an author whose novel The Gallows Pole blew me away. An email about availability, a quick phone call to pay and some exemplary customer service later, and my parcel arrived.

With puffs describing it as a book "full of warmth and kindness" and "with a winning generosity of spirit", The Offing promises to be a very different beast to The Gallows Pole - but perhaps precisely what's needed in the present circumstances.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Food fight

It's a horrendous time to be a small business, for sure - so hats off to some of our favourite places to eat and drink locally, who are finding creative ways to fight back.

Nook are continuing to serve sit-down diners, though tables have been removed to ensure social distance can be maintained, and have rapidly rolled out a Cook & Collect service. Likewise, Victoria Park neighbours Bwydiful are open for business but are offering their entire menu for takeaway. If pizza's more your thing, you can turn to Dough Thrower or Dusty Knuckle, while Milkwood have cleaned and reinstalled an old pizza oven and will be offering homemade Italian food for collection from tomorrow.

For liquid refreshment, Pop 'N' Hops remains open for all your craft beer stockpiling needs, and Trev's brought forwards his plans to start a delivery service to ensure that no one's left high and dry. It's tougher for licensed premises, but St Canna's is welcoming anyone who wants to drop by to pick up some fresh beer for consumption at home, and you can also support them by buying a voucher to redeem when everything gets back to a semblance of normality.

And then there's Pettigrew. Two years ago, back when we thought snowfall constituted disruption to daily life, the bakery was on hand to keep Canton well fed. Well, the same is true now. Today has been largely fuelled by a large ciabatta loaf, slabs of chocolate brownie and Uncommon Ground coffees. The latter illustrate the beauty of the place: support them and you're also supporting other local businesses at a time when they need it most.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

That's entertainment

Music fan stuck at home wondering how to fill your evenings without gigs? Fear not - Simon Tyers of Sweeping The Nation is on hand to help, with a fantastic Twitter thread listing music documentaries that are freely available to view online.

Among those recommended so far - by Simon and his Twitter followers - are Kate Bush On Tour, Heavy Metal Parking Lot, Pavement: Slow Century, We Jam Econo: The Story Of The Minutemen, Motor City's Burning: Detroit From Motown To The Stooges, Do It Yourself: The Story Of Rough Trade and Breadcrumb Trail (on Slint), none of which I've seen before.

My own suggestions were Everybody In The Place, Jeremy Deller's documentary about rave culture and British social history of the 1980s and 1990s, which I'm intending to write about at some point, and Sonic Youth's tour-diary-of-sorts 1991: The Year Punk Broke, also featuring Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. I would also have recommended Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives (on Eels' E and his relationship with his quantum physicist dad) but someone beat me to the punch.

Suddenly not going out doesn't look so unappealing...

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The comfort zone

I'm not one generally given to hysteria, but I can't be alone in currently finding the news absolutely fucking terrifying. I can only imagine how horrific it must be for those of you who already suffer from anxiety. It's obviously critical that we try to minimise coronavirus' physical impact on people - but this whole episode must be taking a devastating toll on mental health too.

But enough of that.

On Sunday, Jay Rayner justified continuing to talk about and write reviews of restaurants in the present circumstances, arguing that not only do we desperately need "light relief" but that it's vital to "cheer lead for businesses like these or they won't be there when a semblance of normality returns". What's more, "These are unusual times; there is no space for the negative review".

I was also struck by this tweet: "As the world shuts down and people turn to film, television, music, podcasts, and books for entertainment and comfort and sanity, I hope most take note that we do, in fact, need the arts."

In light of that sentiment, and heeding Rayner's argument, I'm going to be attempting to avoid dwelling on our present predicament and instead to only publish posts that celebrate culture and the arts, starting tomorrow. (Not a dramatic change of direction, admittedly, but making a written commitment feels important.) I'll be doing so not out of an ignorant or frivolous disregard for the seriousness of the situation, but as a way of helping to lift spirits (my own, if no one else's) and simultaneously showing support to all of those whose creative endeavours really make life worth living but whose livelihoods are under severe threat.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Crash landing

Documentary photographers are sometimes accused of peddling "poverty porn", displaying what is perceived to be an unsavoury fascination with the victims of austerity (an unfounded accusation in the vast majority of cases, I've argued). By contrast, in 2008 Stephen McLaren found himself in the City as the financial crisis unfolded, photographing austerity's architects - or at least those whose bullish recklessness resulted in enormous bank bailouts from the public purse and gave the Tories the hint of justification they needed to slash benefits and social support. The epithet "wealth creators" could hardly have been more ironic.

And yet, when McLaren's book The Crash was published a decade later, he lamented that very little had changed and the same scenario is likely to play out again: "The 'too big to fail' nature of British banks is even more of a systematic booby-trap these days, as competition has been stripped out and some are still relying on tax-payers' money. Last time round few saw the calamity coming. I think next time will be more foreseeable but just as unavoidable. Can someone else take the photographs next time though, please?"

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Deaply disappointing

To say that The Flaming Lips are no strangers to collaborations would be a gross understatement - but I'm afraid to report that their latest, with Deap Vally, is a waste of everyone's time, including the listener's. Lanterns On The Lake's Spook The Herd, by contrast, is pretty much essential listening - especially in these end days.

Also reviewed in the March issue of Buzz are new LPs by Real Estate, Ani Glass and Islet, the latter of which features what is undoubtedly one of my favourite songs of 2020 so far, 'Geese'.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Cancel culture

Announcing the (typically solid and nicely gender-balanced) line-up for this year's Glastonbury on Thursday, Emily Eavis wisely alluded to "the current circumstances" and admitted that "we are keeping our fingers firmly crossed". And well the organisers might, with coronavirus laying waste to gigs and festivals the world over - Coachella (postponed) and SXSW (cancelled) arguably the two biggest casualties so far. Even if the virus peaks in the UK in May as predicted, the festival's 50th anniversary bash may still be called off because of the impact on preparations. Selfishly, my concern is for Green Man - but hopefully the fact that it's scheduled for late August should ensure it goes ahead.

In an article for Pitchfork, Marc Hogan has explored the ramifications of cancelling a festival due to a pandemic: disputes over legal terms and the extent of insurance coverage, job losses, and everyone from promoters to bands to fans left out of pocket.

Among the artists counting the cost of the SXSW cancellation are Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard, Rosehip Teahouse and Adwaith, who were all set to play a Focus Wales showcase gig on Wednesday. Grounded in the UK, they've decided to put the show on at Clwb on the same night instead to recoup some of the money they've lost - but unfortunately even that may be under threat. Rolling Stone's Brian Hiatt spoke to Daniel Griffin, an infectious disease expert, about why concerts are so conducive to the spread of viruses like COVID-19.

I've got two gigs in the diary in the next fortnight, and while part of me wants to go and show support for the bands and the local music scene in person (assuming they go ahead), it might be wiser to opt for alternative means - such as buying albums and merch rather than simply streaming. Even that's been affected, though, with the news that Record Store Day has been pushed back from 18th April until 20th June.

Whatever happens, coronavirus is another enormous blow to the music industry on every level.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Self-preservation society

The coronavirus pandemic has already claimed many lives and will without doubt have an enormous, devastating and long-term impact on people and economies around the world. But, as is always the case with a crisis, there are unscrupulous disaster profiteers eagerly eyeing up a quick buck. Whether it's chemists flogging hand sanitiser for £24.99 a bottle or plagiarists calling themselves authors and self-publishing copy-and-paste guide books, plenty of greedy opportunists are only too happy to exploit (and stoke) public anxiety. And that's not to mention governments and powerful corporations making moves that are straight out of Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine.

In theory everyone is susceptible to the virus, but in reality not everyone is equally exposed to it or its effects, with the rich better able to insulate themselves. However, evidence of narrow self-interest is everywhere you look - most obviously in supermarkets. Jedediah Britton-Purdy has neatly encapsulated the irony in an article for Jacobin: "The new coronavirus makes vivid the logic of a world that combines a material reality of intense interdependence with moral and political systems that leave people to look out for themselves." His brilliant piece strongly advocates solidarity; if people really are concerned about self-preservation, whether in the face of coronavirus or climate change, then they need to understand that ultimately, whatever they might believe (or be told to believe), we're all in this together.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Gig economy

Some would say that flying to a tornado-hit city during an unfolding pandemic for a not-strictly-essential work trip was a questionable decision. But I'm still glad I went to Nashville, and managed to squeeze in some sightseeing around the heavy-duty academic conferencing.

Just two nights before I arrived, entire blocks were razed out east - but the West End area, home to Vanderbilt University, and the downtown streets seem to have avoided the twister's wrath. Nevertheless, reminders were everywhere, from flags flying at half-mast to signs in shop windows declaring solidarity with those worst hit. The city has had to call upon reserves of Blitz spirit required as recently as 2010, when much of the area in and around Nashville suffered catastrophic flooding which left several dead and thousands temporarily displaced and which is currently the subject of a photography exhibition in the Conte Community Arts Gallery at Frist Art Museum. Back then, the main strip of bars was underwater thanks to its proximity to the Cumberland River, but in the wake of the tornado it was business as usual for the city's principal tourist trap - which means a good-timey country band playing in every window and a lot of whooping and hollering whatever the time of day.

So much for Nashville's recent history. The Tennessee State Museum, an attraction that only opened its doors in October 2018 and is all the better for boasting free entry, goes much further back - as far as the formation of the landscape, the age of the dinosaurs and the arrival of the first humans. There is no attempt to peddle the outdated racist myth of the US as being a "young" country, and references to courageous, pioneering (white) explorers are entirely absent; on the contrary, the galleries quite rightly face up to the state's chequered past with regard to settler colonialism, slavery and the Civil War (and all the brutality, betrayal and exploitation that those involved). That Tennessee was subsequently a critical site of struggle during the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century is brought home by the images collected in a recent photobook called We Shall Overcome, published by Vanderbilt University Press in conjunction with the Frist.

Of course, as the Tennessee State Museum's final gallery suggests, much of Nashville's international reputation is built on its rich music history. It's the sort of city where even the hotel concierge who sells you your ticket for the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum is called James Brown. The biggest names in music are all represented there - some of them with their own miniature exhibitions (Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash) and often by the instruments used on recordings of classic songs and albums. However, what really makes the museum worth the $25 entrance fee is not the glossy, self-aggrandising Grammys exhibition but the way the other galleries tell the stories of the unsung backing bands who racked up hit upon hit (LA's Wrecking Crew, Detroit's Funk Brothers), the studio geniuses who captured the magic and the record labels that consistently struck gold (Motown, Stax, Sun). It's like a 3D BBC4 music documentary, and I loved it - as I did the opportunity to arse around with a drum synthesiser. Being in the thick of Viv Albertine's memoir Clothes Music Boys meant that I was very soon aware of the almost complete absence of women - but that, unfortunately, is what the industry was like (and what Albertine, in picking up a guitar rather than a microphone, found herself having to fight against).

Hendrix credits time spent playing on Printer's Alley as when he really learned to master the guitar, so it was there - historically a hotbed of blues and jazz, rather than tiresome country - that we headed for some post-conference nightlife. The Bourbon Street Blues And Boogie Bar was chaotic on a Saturday night, the live band kicking out covers of pop hits to a rowdy, boozy but good-natured crowd, as bar staff slalomed around precariously balancing plastic glasses of brightly coloured cocktails on trays above their heads. I got asked for ID at the door, which goes to show that Americans have a sense of sarcasm if not of irony.

It simply wouldn't have been right not to have sampled some of the local cuisine, so I duly did so: a bowl of hearty jambalaya for my very first meal, an enormous burrito at Qdoba (an unwise choice given the need, at the time, to eat with some decorum), a pulled BBQ hog sandwich at Martin's. Incidentally, I'm also counting the gyro I had at the Farmers' Market (mostly an indoor street food mecca), given Nashville's nickname as "the Athens of the South" - earned in part because of the faintly ludicrous full-scale reconstruction of the Parthenon in Centennial Park, visible from my hotel balcony window.

 I could happily have stayed longer, strolling around under blue skies, licking barbecue sauce off my fingers, working my way through the locally brewed sour beers at Hurry Back while waiting for Best Coast and Deafheaven to turn up and play at neighbouring venue Exit/In. But with the conference over, the students coming back from Spring Break and coronavirus lockdown looking ever more likely,  returning home on a mostly empty plane was the sensible option.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Marching to a different tune

In 1979, photographer Tish Murtha published a scathing piece to accompany her pictures of juvenile jazz bands, which she saw as a quasi-fascistic phenomenon: "To be accepted into, and remain in the juvenile 'jazz' band a child must put aside all 'normal' behaviour, and become the plaything of the failed soldier, the ex-armed forces member, and their ilk; any spark of individuality is crushed by the military training imposed, until the child's actions resemble those of a mechanical tin soldier, acting out the confused fantasies of an older generation."

The images are now set to be published in a new book by Bluecoat Press (Kickstarter page here), and Emily Goddard has written about them for the Independent - and about those Murtha also took in her native Newcastle of the much more anarchic, free-spirited improvised bands that the kids formed themselves.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

The misfits

Often artists and labels are a completely natural fit, to the extent that you can't conceive of the former being signed to anyone else. There are Dischord bands, 4AD bands, Bella Union bands and so on. But there are occasional instances where the marriage seems bizarre or surprising: Maximo Park cropping up on Warp; Eels leaving Dreamworks for emo label Vagrant; Tom Waits and Merle Haggard signing with Anti-, affiliated with punk imprint Epitaph.

As this Treble article underlines, there were several such cases in the early 90s, when the alt-rock gold rush resulted in "one of the weirdest periods of major label activity" - one that saw the likes of Boredoms, John Zorn and Mr Bungle given a home at the big boys. The phenomenon must have brought leftfield music to at least some mainstream consumers' ears, and I'm grateful to the article's author, Jeff Terich, for doing a great job of selling Shudder To Think's Pony Express Record.

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Kool things

In what certainly won't be Suzanne Moore's most controversial Guardian article of the week (ahem), she's written about paying a visit to Ecstatic Peace Library, the pop-up experimental record shop set up in Hackney by a team including Thurston Moore. Anyone who's seen the superb Sonic Youth tour documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke will know the extent of his crate-digging obsession - so it's presumably a dream come true to have his own store.

Moore the journalist asked Moore the musician "the obvious question": "who in their right mind would open a record store now?" The latter's response - "What about artistic profit, creative profit, intellectual profit?" - is inspiringly idealist but does betray the fact that he's (presumably) in the fortunate position of not having to worry about the venture actually making money.

Nevertheless, it's clear from the article that the place has its own unique character, the result of careful curation - it's somewhere to browse and pick up an unanticipated gem, rather than somewhere to go expecting a semi-comprehensive selection of any particular genre. It's also has the potential to be much more than just a record shop - it also sells books and art, and looks set to become a community space and artistic hub too. As such, it's further evidence that Moore is very much settled in his adopted home city and creatively engaged with the local cultural scene.

In summary, then: to use the words of Liz Lemon, I want to go to there.

Friday, March 06, 2020

"Ambitiously bad"

Upon hearing an album described as "bad music as an art form", and as one that "challenges the boundaries of what bad music can be" and is "music's answer to Tommy Wiseau's The Room", of course I was sufficiently intrigued to give it a listen. Take a look at the video for 'Ascension Millennium' so we can all agree that Anthony Fantano was not exaggerating and that Corey Feldman's Angelic 2 The Core thoroughly deserves its place at the top (or should that be the bottom?) of his list of the 15 Worst Albums Of The 2010s.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

The trouble with satire

For the Guardian's Nadia Khomami, writing in 2017, satire is more important than ever, and Private Eye's Ian Hislop argued that we're living in "a golden time". Talking to Channel 4's Jon Snow last autumn about his new film The Day Shall Come, Chris Morris also refused to accept that satire was dead, though admitted it was perhaps ailing - the problem, as he saw it, being that much of what currently passes for satirical comedy "essentially placates the court" when what we really need is "something with a bit more clout".

In a recent This Much I Know interview with the Guardian, Simon Blackwell added his thoughts on the issue: "Watching politics for the last three years has made me grateful I'm no longer writing about it. With The Thick Of It and Veep we found comedy in the gap between the illusion of competence and the chaos underneath, but with Brexit and Trump that fa├žade fell down. I don't know where the laughs are now. What can you write that is more bizarre than what's actually happening?" His view - that satire might not be dead but is certainly next to impossible - is probably closest to my own.

Where I disagree with Blackwell is on the role of the satirist. He claims that the label "is too grand for what I do. I'm a comedy writer who sometimes does politics. Satire to me is bigger and well above my station - it doesn't only critique the world, but also offers answers. I'm afraid to say I have no solutions." For me, the satirist's function isn't to suggest solutions (that should be left to others), it's simply to highlight that there are problems to be solved in the first place.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

England's dreaming myth-making

The scope of any book-length study inevitably has to be circumscribed, but one of my criticisms of Jon Savage's England's Dreaming - which, to be absolutely clear, I generally love - is that he focuses too myopically on the UK and on a narrow period of time from the mid to late 1970s, and as a consequence turns a blind eye to punk's predecessors both at home and abroad. As great a read as it is, then, the book is complicit in maintaining the myth that punk was an exclusively British phenomenon belonging to a very particular time and place.

So I was delighted to see Don Letts - one of Savage's interviewees - give that myth a good kicking in a recent Guardian interview: "Punk didn't start and end in the 70s. It's a constant spirit. An attitude. A living thing. It's Woody Guthrie and Sun Ra. It's just that the British did that colonial thing and put a Union Jack all over it, so it feels like a moment trapped in time."

However, it seems as though it's only the way that punk has been retrospectively framed and packaged by books like England's Dreaming that irritates him. His first-hand memories of the period itself are suggestive of someone who knows he owes a great deal to punk, not least as "a refuge from racism" - vital for the rebellious son of Windrush-generation parents who was struggling to find his place and identity within British society.

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the scene was only a "bubble" - and, sadly, that such a refuge is once again necessary, with overt racism on the rise: "thanks to Brexit, it's happening again. It's absolutely heartbreaking. I still believe in the power of music and culture to change people's lives, but I'm struggling."

(Incidentally, if you want to find out what came after the bubble burst, then Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up And Start Again is essential reading - not least because it avoids the pitfalls of England's Dreaming by adopting a far less parochial perspective.)

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

"A grotesque example of a bigger scandal"

I make no apology for regularly posting about the Tories' pursuit of an ideologically motivated policy of austerity. When its devastating consequences include what effectively constitutes unpaid child labour, the politicians behind it need to be called out as the despicably callous bastards that they are.

What's more, as the Guardian's Frances Ryan makes crystal clear, this already acute social care crisis will only be exacerbated by the government's post-Brexit immigration strategy, which has seen carers among those stigmatised as "unskilled". A staggering 122,000 positions in the sector already stand vacant, and that situation is only set to get worse, with families (and kids in particular) having to pick up the pieces and fill in the gaps.

As Ryan quite rightly laments, "When children are left to clear up the state's mess, the government has truly failed".

Monday, March 02, 2020

There's trouble brewing

Hats off to The Comedian Formerly Known As Joe Lycett for changing his name by deed poll to Hugo Boss just to get up the nose of the fashion company, in retaliation for their bullying "brand enforcement" behaviour. One of their victims was Swansea-based Boss Brewing, who had to bear the £10,000 cost of the legal wrangling and then scrap or relabel existing stock.

Only last week I discovered that another local brewer has endured a very similar experience. Newport's Tiny Rebel went to trademark the genius Wham-referencing name of their best beer, Clwb Tropicana, only to be threatened by the might of Pepsi (who own the Tropicana juice brand) and forced to change it to Clwb Tropica.

Firms like Pepsi and Hugo Boss who are guilty of aggressive cease-and-desist orders deserve all the negative PR they get. Of course, this includes some brewers - most notably, a self-proclaimed punky upstart that claims to be a "renegade craft brewer" on a mission to "burn the established system"...

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Classified results

Martin Parr In Wales might inevitably have been the biggest draw, but it's worth pointing out that the National Museum Cardiff's Photography Season featured two other equally notable exhibitions, both of which closed today.

August Sander and Bernd & Hilla Becher had more than just a country of birth in common (Germany) - they also shared a meticulous cataloguing approach and a steadfast commitment to projects that were almost absurd in their scale and scope. Sander's People Of The Twentieth Century, in particular, sounds like a ludicrously Sisyphean task - and indeed the project was incomplete when the photographer died in 1964, after 62 years of working on it.

Consisting of portraits of some people whom Sander sought out and some who just happened to come to his door, the project is made up of several themed series. The subjects range from philosophers, artists and businessmen to those who, by accident of birth or subsequent misfortune, found themselves on the margins of society. There is an interesting tension between the fact that the captions generally identify each subject by profession or social status rather than by name, which implies an impersonal (or depersonalising) classification or typecasting on Sander's part, and the fact that such a diverse array of portraits was taken in the first place, which implies that he saw everyone as deserving of the respect and dignity that a formal portrait confers and symbolises, no matter what their social standing.

Collectively, the portraits tell stories - of the gradual shift from rural to urban employment, of the rise of the Nazis (represented by portraits of a soldier, a member of the Hitler Youth and an SS officer) - but there are individual images freighted with narrative too, not least those showing widows and widowers clearly still in mourning.

The tragedies of Sander's own life are also represented. In among the pictures of outlandishly moustachioed policemen, stern and porcine bailiffs, and bricklayers with male model looks and smouldering stares are one of the death mask made for his son Erich, who died a political prisoner at the hands of the Nazi regime, and another of his wife holding his newborn daughter and her dead twin brother. These two poignant images transform a project that is otherwise about other people into something that is intensely personal.

There is, by contrast, nothing remotely personal about Bernd & Hilla Becher's Industrial Visions - not least because people are entirely absent from the photos. The couple's passion was for industrial architecture, so their portraits are of winding towers, pitheads and gas towers. Not the most gripping subject matter, you might think - and if you took each image in isolation, you'd probably be right. However, because individual pictures are grouped together (much as Sander did) in grids of 16, the viewer is able to see the similarities and subtle variations between specific types of construction across Europe and North America - and, after a while, to begin to appreciate the stark beauty of some of the forms.

The Bechers had the foresight to recognise the importance of recording the industrial landscape. At the entrance to the exhibition was an astutely selected quote from their catalogue for the 1971 Nuremberg Biennale: "Just as ... cathedrals came out of the medieval world view and ... castles embody the feudal system, these edifices are to be seen as emanations of our time, as a self-representation of our society." Some of their time was spent photographing in the South Wales Valleys, whose present has been irrevocably shaped by heavy industry. On the one hand, Industrial Visions demands that you look on the mighty works of our ancestors and despair at the fact that so little trace is now left of them; on the other, the photos themselves are valuable acts of preservation, fitting memorials to a past that is relatively recent and yet seems increasingly distant.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Action man

It's hard to believe, I know, but before he was a silver-screen alpha-male hard man, Jason Statham was an extra in early-90s music videos, lathered in body paint and/or baby oil and dancing fast and furious in just his pants.

As Vice's Emma Garland puts it, "we can add 'the Adonis of house music' to Jason Statham's cultural CV, and start referring to him as a sort of spray-painted Statue of David that should have been erected in the Hacienda. We can also praise him for the existential crisis he is about to retrospectively inflict on macho blockbuster British masculinity." Given that I'm currently immersed in Grayson Perry's The Descent Of Man, that particular existential crisis can't come too soon.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Bland practice

Hats off to Cal Cashin for writing a review of The Slow Rush that, for me, encapsulates everything that's gone wrong with Kevin Parker and Tame Impala.

It starts off with a real sting: "Notoriously, Parker is one of those musicians that spends literal years labouring over fine details to ensure everything is the best it can be. He rigorously considers every single drum sound, piano loop, and vocal texture, and pours unimaginable quantities of energy into the signature Tame Impala sound. Parker is clearly a talented producer, and has shown in the past that his musical graft often reaps satisfying melodies. It is this perfectionism that defines 2015's smooth-but-insubstantial Currents, and new LP The Slow Rush is certainly cut from the same cloth. So that begs the question: if Parker is such a perfectionist, how come all of his songs are fucking terrible?" Zing, ouch etc etc.

It's a hyperbolic statement, of course - Cashin is, like me, clearly a fan of the first two records, Innerspeaker and Lonerism. What he is recoiling at is the direction in which Parker has taken the band since then - a move kicked off by Currents and consolidated by The Slow Rush. That today's Tame Impala play dull, "genreless vibe music" hamstrung by terrible lyrics is all the more frustrating in light of the band that they once were and indeed could have become. Critical assessments don't come much more damning than "There's a whole lot of nothing", but I'm afraid that the cap fits.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Cod Army fight back

Back in 2014, John Harris wrote a Guardian Long Read about the extent to which my home city Newcastle was suffering from the devastating effects of spending cuts forced on the council by a Tory government zealously pursuing the ideology of austerity. The bleak picture he painted became the setting for Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake two years later.

Six years after Harris' article comes another similar Guardian Long Read, this time about Fleetwood and written by Luke Brown, who spent his formative years there and travelled back to find a town firmly in the grip of deprivation. Like Harris, he conveys the sense of bewilderment, despair and anger at the fact that the town seems to have been abandoned to its fate - though an added element is anti-EU sentiment, given the popular view that Brussels-imposed fishing quotas are responsible for the decline of the industry on which the whole local economy was founded.

As Brown's unflinching report establishes, the problems faced by many of Fleetwood's residents are legion: unemployment, unscrupulous landlords, addiction and poor mental health, to name but a few. And yet (unlike Harris) he manages to end on a positive note, taking hope and heart from the townsfolk's refusal to be passive victims. If no one will help us, they seem to have decided, we'll just have to come together and help ourselves - through community initiatives that seek to prevent social isolation and to give participants a sense of direction and purpose.

Most fascinating (to someone currently reading Grayson Perry's The Descent Of Man, at least) is Brown's observation of "an emotional honesty" among the men he met - a new-found willingness to open up about difficulties with mental health and feel better through the process of sharing and talking about intensely personal experiences. It goes to prove Perry's thesis that the much-needed twenty-first-century make-over of masculinity stands to be of enormous (indeed life-saving) benefit to men as well as women.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Film star

David Hurn has lived quite a life - from bagging a job with Life covering the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 as a wet-behind-the-ears novice, through bearing witness to the Swinging Sixties, to effectively becoming Wales' photographer laureate. A couple of Saturdays ago, at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Culture, he talked about a lifetime of seizing opportunities and making his own luck and of learning first hand from the best in the business, offering plenty of sound advice and guidance of his own along the way.

Here's my report for Wales Arts Review on an inspiring afternoon - and what was billed as his last ever speaking event before retirement from public life. It brought home how absurdly fortunate I was to be invited to interview him in his own home for Buzz a couple of years back - and get my portrait taken by him.

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."