Sunday, August 21, 2005

Without rhyme or reason

Francis Wheen's book 'How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World' could be justly described as an angry polemic. But if you're getting images in your head of 'Grumpy Old Men' and Jeremy Clarkson perched atop his metaphorical soapbox pontificating pompously about speed cameras, then you're way wide of the mark. These are not the half-baked rantings and ravings of a belligerent moron, but the articulate and well-researched arguments of an erudite author.

What I was expecting was a light-hearted dissection of the modern propensity for "mumbo-jumbo" in such spheres as business and alternative therapy - and, true enough, there is for instance a chapter dedicated to the legions of books with titles like 'Moses: CEO' and 'The Leadership Secrets Of Attila The Hun' which claim to contain the secrets of corporate success but which are in fact stuffed with meaningless or hackneyed platitudes. What I actually got was a complex and fiercely impassioned debunking and denunciation of what Wheen labels “the new irrationalism” in all its many manifestations – Reaganomics, catastrophists, New Age quackery, creationists, UFO fanatics, conspiracy theorists, the War On Terror – and a corresponding call for a return to reason and Enlightenment values.

For Wheen there are no sacred cows. Ronald Reagan is memorably described as an "incorrigible fantasist", while it’s made abundantly clear that the author is not a member of the Cult of Diana: “In Britain, the undisputed champion of implausible self-pity was Lady Diana Spencer. At the time of her engagement to Prince Charles in 1981 she was just another dim, round-faced Sloaney girl of the kind you could see on almost every street in Pimlico, Kensington or Earl’s Court, clad in the unprepossessing uniform that prompted some observers to liken her, cruelly but accurately, to a stewardess from Air Bulgaria. By the time of her funeral sixteen years later she was routinely if ludicrously described as one of the most beautiful women in the world, and the most saintly”.

Wheen’s targets might generally be found on the Right of the political spectrum, but he has no qualms about taking those on the Left to task too. Noam Chomsky, for instance, finds himself in the firing line, guilty – in Wheen’s eyes, at least – of always assuming that everything comes down to American imperialism and for automatically assuming that his enemy’s enemy must be his friend.

Of course, the fact that Wheen’s subject matter is the "the sleep of reason" means that very often he has very little to do other than to give the perpetrators of irrationalism enough rope with which to hang themselves, something he does deftly and to hilarious effect. On guru and New Labour adviser Edward de Bono: "In unboastful fashion, de Bono often says he invented 'lateral thinking' - which is like claiming to have invented poetry, or humour, or grief". And in the chapter on postmodernism: "Luce Irigaray, a high priestess of the movement, denounced Einstein's E=mc² as a ‘sexed equation’, since ‘it privileges the speed of light over other [less masculine] speeds that are vitally necessary to us".

I found the latter chapter particularly interesting, Wheen arguing that postmodernism’s “enfeebling legacy” is “a paralysis of reason, a refusal to observe any qualitative difference between reasonable hypotheses and swirling hogwash”. It’s a bit of a caricature but certainly not a wholly undeserved one, and the section in which he illustrates postmodernists’ predilection for "babbling impenetrability" by quoting from Gilles Deleuze had me chuckling and nodding my head in agreement. (Wheen does seem a little over-reliant on Terry Eagleton’s critique of postmodernism, though – ironic in that Eagleton himself is not always the most lucid of critics…)

At every turn the text seems to throw up clay pigeons for Wheen to shoot at. If I had a criticism, though, it would be that the book is somewhat scattergun. The chapters which confine themselves to a single issue work well, but others range across several topics, shifting uneasily from postmodernism to creationism and from a robust defence of the Enlightenment project to the sentimentalism of the public reaction to Diana’s death (“Diarrhoea”). In the interview at the back of the book in which he discusses its reception, Wheen dismisses John Gray’s criticism of it as “a rambling and bilious tirade” on the grounds that Gray is just nettled at being singled out for vilification in its pages – in reality, there is an ounce of truth to the comment.

There are also occasions when Wheen is perhaps guilty of rather overstating the case: “For the American defence industry, which had spent the past decade fretfully calculating the consequences of a ‘peace dividend’, the identification of Islamic terrorism as the latest globe-threatening force was very good news indeed”. And: “Those who defend horoscopes as harmless fun never explain what is either funny or harmless in promoting a con-trick which preys on ignorance and fear”.

But these are minor quibbles which hardly detract from what is a bold and intellectually rigorous book that’ll have the level-headed sceptic in you alternately chuckling and snorting in bewilderment at the absurdities of twenty-first century Western society.
Youthful appearance

This weekend, E4 - usually awash with 'Friends' and 'Big Brother Live' - has been given over to coverage of the V Festival, the corporate shindig for people who don't like music.

Only one thing could have enticed me to go: Sonic Youth's only UK appearance of the year. I was very tempted.

And so it was the cause of no little surprise and delight that yesterday, in the midst of interviews with waste-of-space bands like Maroon 5 and some rather dull Doves live material, E4 decided to allocate ten minutes of programming to the New Yorkers.

Kim in an unfeasibly short dress, Thurston like a shaggy dog, Lee dishevilled, Steve a bit pudgy, Jim unassuming. Yes, they might be starting to look their age, but fuck me if they can't still make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up.

We were treated to 'I Love You Golden Blue' and 'Unmade Bed' (E4 strangely steering clear of showing the "classics" I presume were included in the setlist), both played so beautifully they had me reaching for Sonic Nurse instantly. It just gets better with every listen.

(For a critical take on the standard of E4's coverage, see Sweeping The Nation.)
A treat, not a trick

What a splendid idea: a charity-benefit single in aid of UNICEF called 'Do They Know It's Hallowe'en'. And, even better, the North American Hallowe'en Prevention Initiative who are behind the single include Beck, The Arcade Fire, Sonic Youth, Malcolm McLaren, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Peaches, Buck 65, Devendra Banhart, The Postal Service, Sparks and Roky Erikson. And, er, Sum 41. Go to the Vice Recordings site (via the link above) to hear it.

(Thanks to Simon for the link. Simon's excellent music-centred blog Sweeping The Nation is a very recent addition to the SWSL blogroll - go see.)
Indie press

A couple of band interviews of note from the Guardian:

The Magic Numbers talk to Sylvia Patterson about Brian Wilson's sand-box and the 'Top Of The Pops' "incident". "We were never the Hoxton fins", says drummer Sean Gannon - and it's that resolutely unfashionable air they have about them that makes them stand out.

Caroline Sullivan talks to The Dandy Warhols - not normally something I'd bother with, but worth reading in the wake of seeing Ondi Timoner's documentary film 'DiG!'. Courtney Taylor: "Everyone in Europe loves the movie because it makes people feel hopeful, somehow, but it makes me feel uncomfortable and exposed. But what do I know? My favourite part is where Zia wipes something from my face. We're like monkeys grooming each other, 'cos we're like a family".
Feel good hits of the 21st August

1. 'Kiss You Better' - Maximo Park
2. 'Hell's Bells' - AC/DC
3. 'I Love You Golden Blue' - Sonic Youth
4. 'Ladyflash' - The Go! Team
5. 'Do You Want To' - Franz Ferdinand
6. 'Once More' - The Wedding Present
7. 'Two More Years' - Bloc Party
8. 'In The Backseat' - The Arcade Fire
9. 'Safety Net' - Shop Assistants
10. 'Landmark' - The Field Mice
Know Your Enemy #59

Far too long since the last one of these...

"But I thought I’d try a real Tom Clancy book, in case the poor sucker had simply sold his name and forgotten to read the small print about the actual fiction being any damn good. Guess what I found out? The CIA is full of decent, lantern jawed patriots whose honour is matched only by their enthusiasm for staunchly macho pastimes, like repairing Buicks or teaching ruddy cheeked orphans called Jimmy how to stage a coup and blame Communism. Their wives were either doctors or martial arts experts (as well as being damn fine when horizontal, naturally). Someone in the agency might be a touch dodgy but good old-fashioned patriotism makes everything all right.

My fucking arse.

(The writing, by the way, is 11 year old standard. I know. I’ve taught English to 11 year olds. Give them an editor and we could be talking $$$)
"

C J Wood on "that worthless shitbag" Tom Clancy, from a Villains piece on Bookmunch.

Other Villains featured include Jeffrey Archer, David Baddiel and Helen Fielding. In the interests of balance, though, there are also a number of Heroes pieces on Hunter S Thompson, Charles Dickens and Arundhati Roy amongst others - the best being this assessment of Charles Bukowski.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

"And they'll have to sell all their vans..."

It would be a shameful dereliction of duty were I not to point you in the direction of the one absolutely essential link of the week or even year: the recently released video for JonnyB and Mr Mitt's Post 8 charity single 'Save The Post Office'.

It's been put together by Eclectech, and judging by the extraordinary attention to detail it no doubt took an awful lot of time. Bunnies feature heavily, as does Adam Crozier, and there are also cameos by Tony Blair, Ozzy Osbourne and Jeff Hoon amongst others.

Needless to say, it's utterly, utterly brilliant.
Page and stage

A couple of excellent sites catering for two of my main passions:

Bookslut, currently featuring a decidedly lukewarm review of Bret Easton Ellis's new novel Lunar Park

Comedy Lounge, featuring an Edinburgh Festival diary and highly recommended by Stewart Lee, no less

Friday, August 19, 2005

Blogwatch

Welcome...

Ortho Bob, the LiveJournal of old friend Lord Marmite

Lady Muck, who has been as disappointed as me by Gervais and Merchant's 'Extras' (I must confess to having not bothered at all after the first two - my mistake?)

Meanwhile...

Congratulations to Phill, who's won his way through to the final qualifying stage for the UK Open II Poker Tournament and so might, if he gets lucky, be rubbing shoulders with Phil 'The Power' Taylor.

Elsewhere...

Jonathan dissects BBC4's Britpop nostalgiafest - "The programme entered a kind of social whirl in the middle, where the term 'Britpop' became interchangable with 'Cool Britannia' (which was, perhaps, what they should have been talking about in the first place; not a musical scene at all but a cultural mood, which is quite different), but still excluded plenty from its coverage";

Inspector Sands falls for the charms of Newcastle's Quayside;

Kenny offers some snappy six-word reviews of each and every one of the forty acts he caught at last weekend's Summer Sundae festival in Leicester;

LondonMark writes about "the absurdity of filling out long, long forms" - "Are you going to Scarborough Fair? (Note: if response is 'Yes', please attach travel itinerary and estimated value of items for purchase or sale, remembering to keep all receipts)";

Alan reviews Edinburgh shows by Phil Nichol, Rob Newman and Jason Byrne;

Jason previews forthcoming Sigur Ros LP Takk - "Sigur Rós know something about floating in space. On Takk, they've come down nearer to earth. Takk is Sigur Rós scaled to human proportions. Remember that the popular adjectives to describe them include otherworldly, spacey, and ethereal. They may not walk amongst us yet musically, but Takk is as direct and close as they've come";

He Who Cannot Be Named discovers that by attending St Bede's prep school in Eastbourne he was following in Peter Cook's footsteps - "The only previous famous alumni I can remember in this early morning state is Ed 'cocaine nosejob' Giddins. But then again, he played cricket and didn't make comedy so funny that it loosens your bowels";

Mish suffers at the claws of Big Ron when attempting the familiar off-to-the-V.E.T. routine - "We’ll gloss over the trip. Imagine you’ve got a tornado in a box. Now imagine you’re taking it on the bus. Add in a raucous wail of tiger-like intensity and you get the picture. At least no one wanted to sit next to me";

Swiss Toni is bemused by the current spate of TV adverts for the Army;

Mike tries to come to terms with his expanding waistline;

Willie recalls the time he had sex with an Irishman with an artificial arm - "I even helped him unscrew it before we went to bed, so my parents' misguided idea of giving me a Meccano set for Christmas had finally proved useful".
Singles at the double

There's no resting on laurels for either Franz Ferdinand or Bloc Party, both of whom saw new singles aired for the first time on Steve Lamacq's Radio 1 show on Monday night. (You can listen to it here - if you'd rather skip through, the full playlist is here.

In advance of second LP You Could Have It So Much Better ... With Franz Ferdinand (released on 3rd October), 'Do You Want To' (note: no question mark) is out on 19th September. Not a massive departure from the sound of the first album - not as lapel-grabbing as 'Take Me Out' or as hip-shaking as 'Michael', but enough to keep me happy.

Not to be outdone by the band that "discovered" them, Bloc Party will be putting out their umpteenth single this year, their first not to be taken from debut LP Silent Alarm, on the same day that the Franz Ferdinand album hits the shops - and this after releasing Silent Alarm Remixed next month. Entitled 'Two More Years', the single is on the first few listens a bit of a disappointment - a straightforward verse-chorus pop song in which Matt Tong's fabulously inventive drumming is tamed to a consistent disco beat. Might just be a grower, though.
The sound of silence

Dead Air Space is a new blog by - you guessed it - Radiohead.

Expect the usual randomness. Here's the only bit I could read without feeling a migraine coming on:

"we ar egoing into a proper studio on thursday (for a leettle while)

with 192 faders
which is a lot of choice
a bit like the supermarket
and
it may all go off before we get to it
so we have to eat quick
".

(Thanks to Andrew for the link.)
Please plead temporary insanity

So, you're Robert Webb. Star of the award-winning BBC3 comedy series 'The Smoking Room' (not seen) and the frequently brilliant C4 comedy series 'Peep Show' (seen, and could watch again and again).

You've got cred, fame, respect, admiration...

So, why skip merrily after Alexander Armstrong down Advertising Avenue - appearing in one ad for the Nationwide and, worse still, providing a voiceover for another for McDonalds - unless you've got zero principles and you're doing it solely for cash?

Answers on a postcard (or in the comments box below).

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Online 'Fun'

More Lee and Herring goodness: the 'Fist Of Fun' book is available online in its entirety here.

I particularly like Mr Ice-T's introduction: "[Herring] is an extremely cool and fly dude and his upbringing in the village of Cheddar in Somerset was much like my own in the ghettos of the Urban War that is South Central LA, although his was possibly harder. You have to remember that, back then, Keith and Barbera Herring couldn't even afford a caravan and had to go on their holidays in France in a family-sized tent. Respect to them".

(Thanks to Del for the link.)

Update: Link now fixed - thanks to Olav for pointing out the problem.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Apocalypse now

My first encounter with Douglas Coupland came a few years ago in the form of ‘Generation X’. I wasn’t particularly impressed.

If the task of the novelist is – as is generally assumed to be the case – to chronicle, reflect and refract in fiction the world and times in which he or she lives, then depicting the directionlessness and purposelessness of the lives of well-educated young people in late twentieth century North America is as valid a project as any other. It just doesn’t make for a very gripping read. Before long I found that the only real reason I was persevering with ‘Generation X’ was for the amusing neologisms which appear with definitions at the bottom of nearly every page like footnotes – “McJob”, “Now Denial”, “occupational slumming”.

So I probably wouldn’t have bothered with ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’, were it not for Tom Paulin’s confession of having been “absolutely knocked over by it”. For the dour hypercritical Paulin to praise it as “visually brilliant” and “a millennial novel of a very subtle and interesting kind”, I reasoned, it must be something quite special.

Certainly there’s a drive and focus to the narrative that is absent from ‘Generation X’. The protagonists of both novels drift through life aimlessly, “day-to-day twentieth-century living [having] become an almost unsolvable algebraic equation” – but whereas in Coupland’s debut this is mirrored in the structural shapelessness, the definite forward motion of ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ is striking in comparison. There is always an end in sight.

And an end is what ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ is all about. The end of the world as we know it (as REM, not The Smiths, once sang), no less. But an end which isn’t quite the end but the opportunity for a fresh new beginning for the characters who have “been allowed to see what [their] lives would be like in the absence of the world”.

But the novel’s end is also its biggest problem. The major difference between ‘Generation X’ and ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’ is that the former is simply descriptive, whereas the latter is both descriptive and prescriptive. That means that, perhaps inevitably, the conclusion – an extraordinarily impassioned rallying cry of “Carpe diem!” from the supposedly non-judgemental chronicler of the slacker generation – slides into heavy-handed preaching, the ghost Jared lecturing the reader as transparently as he is his friends.

This loss of subtlety and authorial restraint is a shame, because otherwise it’s an ambitious and visionary book that I enjoyed much more than its lightweight predecessor.

(A postscript: What’s with all the Smiths references? Aside from ‘Girlfriend In A Coma’, I noticed (when I could be bothered to look) ‘Ask’, ‘Hand In Glove’ and – most conspicuously – ‘The Queen Is Dead’. It just seems like Coupland playing pointless games, a gimmick for trainspottery readers, one which detracts needlessly from the novel’s seriousness.)
Roleplay

The University has been hosting the Tolkien Society conference. Unremarkable, you might think, but Tolkien enthusiasts are apparently unable to assemble together without dressing up in 'Lord Of The Rings' style garb.

Imagine my surprise to enter our tower block on Friday to be confronted by a wizard-type bearded figure clad in brown gown and sandles, chatting away on the payphone. I'm sure they didn't have telecommunications in Middle Earth.

Campus has been crawling with hairy-footed hobbits and mysterious cloaked figures. I also thought I spotted someone who'd come as Gollum, but as it turned out he was just extraordinarily ugly.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Fringe benefits

Following the Sunday Times feature written by Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, the pair have been interviewed by the Guardian's Phil Daoust. It covers all the usual bases - the cancellation of 'This Morning With Richard Not Judy', the furore kicked up following the BBC's screening of 'Jerry Springer - The Opera', their hatred for Ben Elton - but it's still well worth a read.

Lee on Elton's return to stand-up comedy: "The most interesting thing about Elton in the last five years is the way that he's become a despised figure. You know you have to give titles to your stand-up shows; if I was Ben Elton I'd call it Fascinating Betrayal and try and justify my position. Instead, I expect he's going to dismiss that and then talk about fatherhood, or try and regain a bit of ground. It'll be like the elephant in the living room: you can't discuss Ben Elton's massive boil of hypocrisy that needs to be lanced".

Alan of Random Burblings has reviewed Herring's Edinburgh show 'Someone Likes Yoghurt' here, and Herring has written about it on Warming Up, as well as enthusing about Phil Nichol's show 'Nearly Gay' and reflecting on Jim Bowen's stand-up too.

If it's bitesize reviews of the Festival that you're after, look no further than Skif's excellent Box Social. In the four days he's been up there he's already seen Daniel Kitson, Rob Newman, Robin Ince's The Book Club, Andy Parsons, Tim Vine and Will Hodgson. Of those I've not heard of before, alcoholic children's entertainer Jeremy Lion sounds particularly intriguing.
Blogwatch: in brief

Welcome...

Kitty Killer, a politics-centred blog written by a Brum semi-acquaintance Dave.

Meanwhile...

Congratulations to The Girl, who makes an appearance in this month's issue of Eve magazine in an article entitled "When Private Sex Diaries Go Public". Print fame at last! The book deal's just round the corner...

Elsewhere...

Willie mourns the death of Robin Cook - "Cook wouldn't necessarily have been a great party leader or Prime Minister but at a time when we have to endure the likes of Blunkett, Straw, Reid, Clarke et al, the loss to politics is massive";

Pete is relieved to have jacked in what sounds like a terrible job and have rosier employment prospects on the horizon;

Jonathan welcomes a new addition to the Manchester skyline.

It's all a bit quiet at the moment, isn't it?
Frog march

A warning for JonnyB: first it was rabbits, and then the mole - now it looks like there's a load of frogs headed your way. But not just any old frogs - oh no. These are frogs with Norfolk accents.

Be afraid, be very afraid. Perhaps you need to get the shotgun out of the shed again. Or, alternatively, invite some Frenchmen to stay.
Quote of the day

"We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realise truth" - Pablo Picasso

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Wedding bells and 'Hell's Bells'

Another weekend, another fabulous wedding.

A truly spectacular setting (we even had an amateur cricket match to entertain us while we were enjoying glasses of Pimms in the sunshine) and a couple who look fantastic together. Congratulations and very best wishes to Leon and Ruth.

Best man Skif came up trumps (once he'd got over his excitement at the Ashes win, that is) with a cracking speech and a whole load of badges for the guests featuring a picture of the groom sporting a silver dress and a face plastered in chocolate gateau.

Great evening do, too - rarely can 'Hell's Bells', this week's AC/DC track of choice, have been welcomed more enthusiastically.
Robin Cook RIP

At a time when soundbites and image seem to be practically all that matters in the world of politics, Robin Cook - who looked like a garden gnome relieved of his fishing rod and deposited on the front benches - made for an unlikely and easily caricatured politician, but consistently proved himself skilled in the art of reasoned debate rather than mere rhetoric.

Though his private life may have been messy, in public he was principled and resolute, and will be best remembered for resigning over his dissatisfaction with Blair's decision to take the country to war in Iraq, thereby showing his solidarity with the majority of Britons. Some might question why, as a man of old Left sympathies, Cook chose to serve in Blair's New Labour government in the first place, but his resignation undoubtedly struck a severe blow to the Government.

Link:

Inspector Sands of Casino Avenue reacts to the news of Cook's death.
Double trouble

There was a great feature in last weekend's Sunday Times (unfortunately not available online, it seems) in which Stewart Lee and Richard Herring wrote about each other to coincide with the beginning of the Edinburgh Festival. Oh, all right - of course I was going to think it was great, given that I love both of them unconditionally.

Herring on Lee:

"In pursuit of integrity, Stewart is a man who seems prepared to cut off his face to spite his nose".

"He is now actually as good as he believed him to be 10 years ago. In another 10 years, he might be as good as he thinks he is now. Alas, then only Stephen Hawking will be clever enough to understand him".

Lee on Herring:

(On his early stand-up career in south London) "The world wasn't quite ready for a shouting Somerset Weeble".

"When I first saw Richard doing proper stand-up this year, his extended routine about yoghurt was the purest distillation of Richard Herring I have encountered - irritating, relentless, pathetic, petty, pedantic, arrogant, embarrassing, pointless and endlessly funny".

Link:

Dominic Maxwell of the Times reviews Lee's 'Stewart Lee - 90s Comedian' Edinburgh show.
15 not out

Issue #15 of the marvellous Vanity Project fanzine is out now, and features the following (and much, much more):

Interview: a.P.A.t.T.

Album reviews: Electrelane, Sufjan Stevens, Art Brut, Clor, The Decemberists, Pennywise, Dressy Bessy

Single reviews: Special Needs, Rilo Kiley, Millionaire

Live reviews: The Magic Band, Turbonegro, Architecture In Helsinki

Book review: Ben Myers - 'Green Day: American Idiots & The New Punk Explosion'

All of that and a topical picture of a cricketer on the cover - spiffing! Available gratis by sending a SAE to Skif - address details on request by email. Alternatively, you can just read it online here.
Blogged out

Calling all bloggers! Tired? Unhappy? Maybe you should take a look at this: 'What Everyone Should Know About Blog Depression'. It can affect anyone, you know.

(Thanks to Kenny and Vicky for the link.)

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Feel good hits of the 9th August

1. 'Apply Some Pressure' - Maximo Park
2. 'Surfin USA' - Beach Boys
3. 'Back In Black' - AC/DC
4. 'Love Me Like You' - The Magic Numbers
5. 'Hey Ya' - Outkast
6. 'Everybody Come Down' - The Delgados
7. 'Une Annee Sans Lumiere' - The Arcade Fire
8. 'Too Much Time' - Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band
9. 'Length Of Love' - Interpol
10. 'Long Slow Goodbye' - Queens Of The Stone Age

Friday, August 05, 2005

Blogwatch

Welcome...

Two music-centric blogs of note:
One Louder
The 15 Minute Hipster

Happy birthday...

Little Red Boat, four years old
Are The Stars Out Tonight?, one year Little Red Boat's junior

Meanwhile...

Matthew reviews Pitchfork's Intonation Music Festival, held in Chicago, which featured (amongst many others) Fourtet, Broken Social Scene, Outhud, Deerhoof and Les Savy Fav. His opening comment about The Go! Team just about sums it up: "So much fun!"

Elsewhere...

Vicky sets a few things straight about private schooling (and I can relate to her irritation at the myths continually perpetuated about it) - "What a private schooling assures you is an assembly in a cold building, more ridiculous tradition than you can shake a stick at (Cadet Force? 7 mile cross-country runs?) and outdated rules";

Backroads is smitten by the new Bob Mould LP Body Of Song - "It's more up than down for a change... in the past his cup has often been more half empty than half full, and this brighter sound lifts not only the dance influenced cluster of tracks but also the more traditional four on the floor rock tracks";

Alan finds himself supping a pint in Edinburgh's Oxford Bar, the regular watering hole for Ian Rankin's heavy-drinking Inspector Rebus - "A review posted to the wall tells the story that a customer once asked the landlord for a packet of crisps and was dragged outside where he was asked pointedly where exactly on the frontage this establishment was described as a fucking restaurant";

Mish allows her gentleman readers into the secret of how a lady stays, ahem, ladylike.

(Incidentally, does anyone know what's happened to Sarah's blog Not You, The Other One?)
You gotta fight for your right to (be in Bloc) Party

If reports are to be believed, Kele Okereke of Bloc Party and Eddie Argos of Art Brut have indulged in a spot of fisticuffs in a Shoreditch club.

It all stemmed from some disparaging comments made by Argos in a PlayLouder interview last year. Okereke responded, and then Argos had this to say at Glastonbury: "[Kele] got a bit upset didn't he? That must have been a vanity google. Hahaha. Bloc Party are OK. They're a bit like Oasis. Like a post punk Oasis, but instead of T Rex they've used Gang of Four. They've still got good lyrics about helicopters. [Pauses] I hate Bloc Party, hehehe, I really hate them. I really hate that 'it's so hard being famous and having loads of money'. I hate it. 'Do you know what my favourite book is, it's 'Lord Of The Flies' because I was bullied in school'. Like fuck off! Who wasn't bullied in school? Tell you what, 'The Catcher In The Rye', that's my favourite book when I'm shooting people. I hate them. Those nonsense lyrics! It's like 'I'm such a sensitive outsider'. I hate Bloc Party".

No wonder Okereke was slightly aggrieved when he came face-to-face with Argos.

Bloc Party are guilty of taking themselves too seriously at times, but then that could be said of nearly any band. Call me cynical, but could Mr Argos be trying to engineer a feud in order to get publicity and exposure for his own band?

Incidentally, Bloc Party are releasing Silent Alarm Remixed on 29th August via Wichita Recordings. Each song from their debut is remixed by a different artist, with contributions from Mogwai, Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Jason Clark (Pretty Girls Make Graves), Ladytron, Fourtet, Engineers, Whitey, M83 and Erol Alkan. Could be well worth a listen, especially Kieran Hebden's reworking of 'So Here We Are', currently destined to be #1 in the SWSL Top 20 Singles Of 2005.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Reasons To Be Cheerful #11

(If you're wondering what this is all about, click here.)

Cafe Soya

One night not long after J first moved to Birmingham, nearly four years ago, we went wandering down to the Arcadian and the Chinese quarter on the hunt for a quality restaurant. We soon spotted what we were looking for. After passing a few near-empty joints, we came to a cafe packed full of Oriental diners and instantly knew that the Noodle Bar was the place to be - and so it proved, with enormous portions served up for minimal cost.

An evening in the upmarket Chung Ying Garden Cantonese restaurant nearby only convinced us even more - though the food was very good (incidentally, we passed up the chance to try "duck webs and fish lips" as a starter...), we didn't feel it justified the extra expense. So, for the next three years, the Noodle Bar it was.

Until, that is, Andy was kind enough to point us in the direction of Cafe Soya, just round the corner in the Arcadian itself.

Slightly classier and more restauranty in its decor than the Noodle Bar, Cafe Soya serves up absolutely fantastic Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine at prices to suit even the smallest of budgets, to the extent that it received a commendation in last year's Observer Food Monthly Best Cheap Eat awards. The ingredients are always incredibly fresh, the dishes lipsmackingly tasty and the service friendly, quick and efficient.

I highly recommend the lemongrass chicken skewers for starters, followed by the hot and spicy Vietnamese noodles - but, as the name might suggest, Cafe Soya is also a haven for veggies, the menu packed with veggie alternatives. Just steer clear of their speciality soya milkshake - I'm told it looks and tastes like frogspawn.

Unfortunately the cafe doesn't have a licence to serve alcohol, but for a small corking charge you can take your own booze.

All of which means that our allegiances have very definitely shifted - but, though we feel a bit guilty for being fickle and abandoning somewhere which served us so well for three years, it doesn't last long once you take a slurp of the hot and sour soup...

(You can read Andy's own proselytising in favour of Cafe Soya here.)
This week on Stylus

Cosmo Lee tries to give the Smashing Pumpkins' ludicrously titled double LP Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness liposuction. Of course it was flabby, but then its length and variety was always part of the appeal - I never found it "an exhausting, forbidding listen", and I never thought songs like 'Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans' and 'Thru The Eyes Of Ruby' were "turgid opuses".

That said, Lee's attempt to trim the flab makes for interesting reading, not least because some of what he chooses to keep I would have been tempted to bin if forced to make the choice. But is rearranging the tracklisting to give it a sense of linearity and direction really preferable to the seeming randomness of the original? There's only one way to find out - burn this new slimmer version to CD and try it out...

Anyone lamenting the demise of Auspicious Fish should be aware that Nick's still writing about music (despite contemplating jacking that in too), as recent reviews of albums by Maximo Park, Editors and Clor testify.

Also well worth a read: Jon Dale's excellent review of the recently reissued first three Dinosaur Jr albums. As a bit of a Johnny-Come-Lately, I've always preferred the later stuff (Where You Been being, for me, their finest hour), but Dale does a good job of convincing me to dig out my original copy of Bug and give it another whirl.
A Wales of a time

The definition of a good wedding reception: held in a hotel vaguely reminiscent of The Overlook in 'The Shining', situated in a beautiful part of the world, and with a DJ - by day a farmer - who is quite happy to play 'Back In Black' by AC/DC at the request of the bride's uncle Huw. (Though he did blot his copybook later with 'Macarena' and 'Mambo #5'...)

So, congratulations and best wishes to Stu and Vicky. Oh, and a word of warning for Leon: this weekend has got a lot to live up to...
Serendipity

A happy coincidence - no sooner had I posted a review of Alan Bennett's 'Writing Home' than Michelle of Black Dove finished Bennett's collection of novellas 'Three Stories'. You can read her thoughts on the book here (and mine here).

Michelle, an inspiring writer herself, is constantly on the look-out for interesting literary links, so if you consider yourself a bookworm then Black Dove is always worth a visit.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

"Taking the pith out of reality"

Alan Bennett's 'Writing Home' really is a treat, a feast of great writing which collects together assorted bits and pieces written over a period of nearly twenty-five years - though that description is in itself inadequate, as "bits and pieces" implies scrapiness and inconsistency.

Much of the material is about other writers and the business of being a writer and playwright - potentially tedious and masturbatory, but Bennett writes with such warmth and dryly self-deprecating humour about the profession that it's impossible not to enjoy: "'They fuck you up, your mum and dad', and if you're planning on writing that's probably a good thing. But if you are planning on writing and they haven't fucked you up, well, you've got nothing to go on, so then they've fucked you up good and proper".

The volume includes the prefaces to several plays as well as behind-the-scenes diary entries centering on rehearsals and filming - the bits which engrossed me least, simply because I haven't seen any of the plays concerned, but even then there were paragraphs that raised a chuckle. On 'Getting On': "In the event, the play won an Evening Standard award for the best comedy of 1971. It had never seemed to me to be a comedy, and at the ceremony I said it was like entering a marrow for the show and being given the cucumber prize".

Indeed, there are laughs to be found in the most unlikely of places, such as in 'Comfortable Words', an address given to the Prayer Book Society, when Bennett is talking about those who advocate the Alternative Service Book over the Book Of Common Prayer: "God is like an aged father taken in by this well-intentioned children. They want to keep him presentable and a useful member of society, so they scrap his old three-piece suit, in which he looked a little old-fashioned (though rather distinguished), and kit him out instead in pastel-coloured leisurewear in which he looks like everybody else".

So what did I enjoy most? The autobiographical reminiscences are certainly very readable, and the volume concludes with a fantastic piece entitled 'Going Round', about the theatrical tradition of visiting the dressing rooms of the stars post-performance in order to lavish flattering and insincere praise on the occupants. That it appears under the section title 'Stocking Fillers' hardly does it justice.

Then there is 'Alas! Deceived', the superb (and lengthy) review of Andrew Motion's biography of Philip Larkin (which has reinforced my feeling that it's a book I'd very much like to read), and the assorted reflections and thoughts left over from his two plays about Kafka and reheated under the title 'Kafka At Las Vegas'. This is what Bennett feels would fascinate the Czech writer were he alive today: "He is interested in the feelings of the squash ball, and of the champagne bottle that launches the ship. In a football match his sympathy is not with either of the teams but with the ball, or, in a match ending nil-nil, with the hunger of the goalmouth".

If the job of the writer is indeed "taking the pith out of reality", as Bennett suggests in a parody of a TV arts show interview, then he is a master of his art, and also of the art of taking the piss out of himself. The diaries in particular, spanning the decade from 1980 to 1990, are packed with the sharp and amusing observations of someone who looks slightly askance at the world in which he finds himself.

On his political leanings: "An article on playwrights in the Daily Mail, listed according to Hard Left, Soft Left, Hard Right, Soft Right and Centre. I am not listed. I should probably come under Soft Centre".

On theatre critics: "Steven Berkoff, who is currently everywhere, is quoted as saying that critics are like worn-out old tarts. If only they were, the theatre would be in a better state. In fact critics are much more like dizzy girls out for the evening, just longing to be fucked and happy to be taken in by any plausible rogue who'll flatter their silly heads while knowing roughly the whereabouts of their private parts. Worn-out old tarts have at least got past that stage".

On his own practical abilities: "I mend a puncture on my bike. I get pleasure out of being able to do simple, practical jobs - replacing a fuse, changing a wheel, jump-starting the car - because these are not accomplishments generally associated with a temperament like mine. I tend to put sexual intercourse in this category".

But in amongst such witticism there is serious and touching reflection, not least in 'The Lady In The Van', the diary record of an eccentric who lived in a van in Bennett's Camden garden for fifteen years and whose death affected him profoundly.

Perhaps most affecting of all, though, are those occasional entries which deal with Bennett's visits to his mother, whose mental health was steadily declining: "We have our sandwiches on a hill outside Weston with a vast view over Somerset. She wants to say, 'What a grand view', but her words are going too. 'Oh', she exclaims. 'What a big lot of About.' There are sheep in the field. 'I know what they are', she says, 'but I don't know what they are called'. Thus Wittgenstein is routed by my mother". Poignant enough even to conquer this cynical heart.
Blogwatch

Welcome...

Dr Migs, new to the blogging block.

Stephen Newton Diary Of Sorts, who - like Inspector Sands and Jonathan - was so incensed by today's outrageous Daily Express front page that he sent a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission.

Meanwhile...

Willie Lupin does what he does best - well focused indignation, directed at the People for their mock outrage at the "revelation" that 'Coronation Street' star Keith Drinkel once appeared in a gay porn film.

Elsewhere...

Happy six month anniversary to Alan's Random Burblings, a blog that has very quickly become a real favourite around these parts;

Jonathan's back from holiday, wiser on several fronts - "Those quintessential English villages that you see on picture postcards and in luxurious adaptations of Agatha Christie novels made for American TV really do exist. Or at least one of them does. It is called Thornbury and it is just north of Bristol, where we had booked into a rather plush Travelodge for the night. Out of our room window you could see the local cricket club pitch, and there was a real red telephone box and a very English-looking old-fashioned inn where you went to get your dinner. To complete the picture we came across a real live English eccentric, respendent in blazer and bow tie, who was checking in just as we came back from the pub";

Del tries manfully to justify his fondness for 'Linger' by The Cranberries (has anyone got the heart to tell him he's fighting a losing battle?);

JonnyB's concerned he's porking out a bit - "A sickening mass of blubber drooped over my belt, thrusting my tee shirt away from my body like a flared shade on an obese standard lamp that walks around and lives in Norfolk and has a widely-read Internet Web Log".
When weather attacks

Thunderbolts and lightning! Very very frightening! Oh, and a tornado.

Yep, that's right folks - early this afternoon, during a violent thunderstorm, Birmingham was hit by a tornado. Well, Moseley was, at any rate. Go to Andy Pryke's blog for added photographic evidence of the destruction.

Was it God wreaking spectacular revenge on the place that gave the world Ocean Colour Scene? Local residents must have feared that this day would come since about 1995.
This week on Stylus

Josh Love follows up recent essays on rockism and popism with a piece entitled 'The Problem With Indie': "Indie-rock does such a good job in general of projecting an attitude of insularity that it’s easy to forget: not everyone’s a killjoy, not everybody’s weird because they hate fun, and yes, some indie-rockers are here because they want to entertain".

Also on an indie rock tip, Ross McGowan writes about how he came to associate The Dismemberment Plan's 'Gyroscope' with having a tapeworm.

Ross has also reviewed the new Concretes release Layourbattleaxedown, "a miniature career overview of sorts".
Quote of the day

"Nothing is more fatal than the disaster of too much love."

Good ol' D H Lawrence, with a sentiment that's unlikely to be appearing in Hallmark Valentines cards anytime soon.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The legend of Legends

The weekend's stag do in Newcastle, which has left me feeling physically damaged, took in a football match, a trip to the dogs, a curry, a night out in a smart city centre bar / club, a fancy meal, three games of ten-pin bowling and an enormous amount of alcohol, as well as a night out at Legends on Saturday.

Legends was, appropriately enough, where Little Jeff had been DJing most recently prior to falling ill. Unfortunately the tribute night isn't until this coming Saturday, when - amongst other things - they'll be having a minute's noise in his memory. I'd have liked to have been there to pay my respects, as I think would some of the others in our party, but we still got a song dedicated to the great man.

As Apollo 440 once sang, you can't stop the rock.

Link: Family and friends pay tribute to Little Jeff.
An unexpected surprise

On the rare occasions I pick it up, I'm reminded what an awful little rag the Metro is. Apart from the music pages, that is - an oasis in the desert of badly written news articles and features.

For some strange reason, they always seem to review and feature bands of which hardly any of their readership can have heard, but which otherwise only really get coverage in the specialist music press.

Yesterday's issue was a good example. The main review was of Editors' debut album The Back Room (in which vocalist / guitarist Tom Smith came in for some serious stick, though the overall judgement was of its being a record to admire), while there were also assessments of new LPs by The Raveonettes, Clor, Black Mountain and The Shortwave Set. The singles section included a review of !!!'s new double-A side covers single 'Take Ecstasy With Me' / 'Get Up'.

Over the page there was a preview for a gig by Domino's new Next Big Thing, Test Icicles. "Bits of death metal, drilling drum machines and art-rock angularity" - hmm, debut single 'Boa Vs Python' could be one to scurry HMV-wards for, methinks.
Something fishy this way comes

Over on Danger! High Postage Phill's publicising the autumn / winter line-ups for enigmatic Frenchman Phillipe Bergeroo's A Different Kettle Of Fish nights...

Tuesday 13th September
Midas
Beats Capri
StrangeTime
Sinistra

Tuesday 11th October
Hooker
When Bears Attack
The Graham Parsnip Liquidiser Torture Think-Tank (Project)

Tuesday 8th November
The Rock Of Travolta
Smilex
The Program

Tuesday 6th December (Xmas Special)
Trash Fashion
And What Will Be Left Of Them?
The Pubic Fringe
MotorCycleStunts

Each gig takes place at the Flapper & Firkin in Birmingham and entry is a mere three English pounds.
Feel good hits of the 26th July

A bumper edition...

1. 'God Only Knows' - The Beach Boys
2. 'Now I'm All Over The Shop' - Maximo Park
3. 'Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)' - The Arcade Fire
4. 'The Boys Are Back In Town' - Thin Lizzy
5. 'No-One Knows' - Queens Of The Stone Age
6. 'Stockholm Syndrome' - Muse
7. 'Evil' - Interpol
8. 'Blue Orchid' - The White Stripes
9. 'Meantime' - The Futureheads
10. 'Best Of You' - Foo Fighters
11. 'Girls Girls Girls' - Motley Crue
12. 'Arabian Sand' - The Coral
13. 'Title And Registration' - Death Cab For Cutie
14. 'Only' - Nine Inch Nails
15. 'Dance Me In' - Sons & Daughters