Friday, August 26, 2005

What's Hot On The SWSL Stereo: August 2005

You may have noticed a lack of decent content round these 'ere parts of late, and in particular a dearth of music-centred waffle (partly a consequence of my shameful gig-going drought). So to go some way to rectifying the situation, here are some long overdue thoughts on a few albums that have commandeered my stereo for long periods in recent months...

Bloc Party - Silent Alarm

When I said long overdue thoughts, I meant long, long overdue. Not least because I've already written about the new first non Silent Alarm single 'Two More Years'.

There are two things I love about this album. Firstly, the spidery guitar lines and clever effects. Secondly, and even more importantly, Matt Tong's incredible epileptic drumming - always inventive and unusual, it gives the songs a twitchy on-edge feel ideally suited to the lyrics. 'Like Broken Glass' and 'Helicopter' are particularly special, but best of all is 'So Here We Are', a brilliant, brilliant song illuminated by Tong's contribution and guaranteed to be right up there in my end-of-year lists.

And of course it's all borne out of the band's impeccable taste in music. If songs this clever and complex can capture kids' imaginations, then there's hope - which is why it would be a shame if 'Two More Years' signals a more direct and poppy direction for album number two.

Maximo Park - A Certain Trigger

At last - a band from Newcastle that I can unreservedly endorse! Maximo Park are never going to oust Mackems The Futureheads from my affections, but then no-one's asking me to choose between them. The world's big enough for the two of 'em, and my record collection certainly is.

Any album featuring three of the very finest singles of the year - 'Graffiti', 'Going Missing' and 'Apply Some Pressure' - and a great double A-side from last ('The Coast Is Always Changing' / 'The Night I Lost My Head') was always going to be decent, but of course the worry was that they'd be the peaks and everything else would seem like troughs. Naturally, on the first few spins the singles do stand out, but it doesn't take long for the other tracks to reveal their considerable charms - 'Once, A Glimpse', 'I Want You To Stay', 'Limassol', 'Kiss You Better', 'Now I'm All Over The Shop'...

Unlike near-neighbours The Futureheads, they steer clear of clattering punk and display more of a pop sensibility, coming across like a rough-around-the-edges and slightly less arch Pulp gone new wave. That template serves them well, and it's only when they abandon it that they find themselves on less solid ground - vocalist Paul Smith might be most proud of his lyrics to 'Acrobat', but the song, co-written with keyboardist Lukas Wooller, is the only dud on the album, as well as the only track that veers towards sounding like their label Warp's more usual fare.

A Certain Trigger is a great debut by anyone's standards. J's standards are rather different to my own - she likes it "because he enunciates really well and you can hear what he's singing"...

The Coral - The Invisible Invasion

It seems that the negative effects of all that pot-smoking are making themselves shown. There have been hints of a darker side to The Coral - witness 'Keep Me Company' from Nightfreak And The Sons Of Becker and the lyrics to incongruously jaunty single 'Bill McCai' from second album proper Magic & Medicine - but, as its title suggests, the prevailing mood of The Invisible Invasion is paranoia and sombre reflection.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think - and certainly that's the sort of thing I'm normally drawn to like a moth to a lightbulb. But The Coral are all about fun and playfulness, and in musical terms this all feels rather lacklustre and lifeless alongside the pop genius of songs like 'Dreaming Of You' and 'Pass It On' - 'Arabian Sand' and a couple of others aside, the new tracks just don't grip the imagination in the same way. Little wonder, then, that they looked so disinterested showcasing them at Glastonbury. Perhaps, a few albums in, they've just become jaded.

Even more surprising, though, is the relative lack of novelty and invention - especially given that their last release, Nightfreak..., was stuffed full of fantastic ideas hinting at all manner of possible new avenues.

A disappointment, sadly.

Queens Of The Stone Age - Lullabies To Paralyze

How would Queens Of The Stone Age sound post-Oliveri? Well, pretty much like they did before he and Josh Homme parted company.

True, Lullabies To Paralyze sets off on a disarmingly different tack with 'This Lullaby', a gossamer-light track with vocals by Mark Lanegan that wouldn't have been out of place on the ex Screaming Trees man's last album Bubblegum. But then 'Medication' kicks in, and it's business as usual - primal hard rock to make your ears pop, your head nod and your face grin.

It takes a little while to warm up, but there's a four track sweet spot right in the middle which includes the single 'Little Sister', the softer and more delicate 'I Never Came' and 'Someone's In The Wolf', a stoner jam with a relentless groove that recalls the sound of their eponymous debut.

Sure, it's too long - it could lose the bluesy Billy Gibbons' collaboration 'Burn The Witch' and the tedious 'Skin On Skin', and I wouldn't miss much - and Homme still hasn't quite come up with the album to match the quality of their live performances, but Lullabies To Paralyze is a fine follow-up to Songs For The Deaf all the same.

The Arcade Fire - Funeral

Regrets - I've had a few. One of the most recent is passing up the opportunity to get tickets to see The Arcade Fire when they came to Birmingham in May. The gig sold out well in advance - those who were lucky enough to get tickets, including Kenny, obviously knew something that I, at the time, didn't.

And now I do know it. And what I know is that Funeral is an absolutely stunning album.

The Montreal band are utterly unique - the guitar sound of The Strokes or The Talking Heads, the strings and sense of the epic of Godspeed! You Black Emperor (unsurprising given the involvement of G!YBE's Jessica Moss and Sophie Trudeau), the thumping disco drumbeat of Blondie (courtesy - on record at least - of Hotel2Tango recording engineer Howard Bilerman), the widescreen vision of The Flaming Lips (witness the incredible opening to 'Wake Up') all unfeasibly coalesce to create something quite astonishing which plays your heartstrings like Jimmy Page in his prime.

The first half of the album - particularly 'Neighborhood#1 (Tunnels)' and single 'Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)', which winds up with vocalist Win Butler sounding mad-eyed and feral - is breathtaking, but somehow the second half is even better. Kicking off with the splendidly queasy waltz 'Crown Of Love' ("I carved your name across my eyelids", "my love keeps growin' still the same, just like a cancer"), it continues with the aforementioned 'Wake Up', gentler interlude 'Haiti' and the frenzied and intense call-to-arms that is 'Rebellion (Lies)' ("Sleeping is giving in, so lift those heavy eyelids") before winding up with 'In The Backseat' in which Butler's wife, keyboardist Regine Chassagne, takes centre stage. Rarely can a song - and a whole album - soaked with the stench of death have been so powerfully uplifting.

To repeat: this is a fucking phenomenal record that you MUST get your hands on, if you haven't already. Beg, steal or borrow, as the saying goes.

You never know, just around the corner there might be reviews of other recent acquisitions: Sons And Daughters, Stephen Malkmus, The Arcade Fire, Sleater-Kinney, Eels, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Shins, The Dresden Dolls, The Magic Numbers, The Go! Team. I wouldn't hold your breath if I was you, though...


Stylus review of Bloc Party's Silent Alarm

Stylus review of Maximo Park's A Certain Trigger

Pitchfork review of The Coral's The Invisible Invasion

Stylus review of QOTSA's Lullabies To Paralyze

Stylus review of The Arcade Fire's Funeral

Kenny's review of The Arcade Fire's Birmingham gig in May

He Who Cannot Be Named's review of The Arcade Fire's London gig in March (scroll down a bit to find it)
Blogwatch: in brief


Lex Scripta, online home of Stylus writer Alex Macpherson

Betty's Utility Room, the blog of a recent visitor to SWSL and fellow fan of Musings From Middle England


Pink is left disappointed by Scissor Sisters at the V Festival;

Alan is unimpressed by Stewart Lee's Edinburgh show;

Smacked Face gets all tearful at a Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds gig.

And finally...

Mike, "a fully paid-up homosexualist", confesses to liking staring at women's tits.
Know Your Enemy #60

"Went to Kasabian last nite at the Astoria. I sent a photo-message to a friend that said 'Kasabian are messianic shit'. It’s this outstretched arms, worship me like I’m your fucking god attitude that sticks in my craw as a large twig would do. Kasabian are all widdly keyboards and compulsive basslines and non-words like 'Nanana-Boommmm!' ... It is all a swaggering, cock-waving sound that is ultimately empty and futile. Moody bollocks for moody car adverts played by Prada models. The way they look is 23 per cent of their appeal".

He Who Cannot Be Named on Leicester knuckledraggers Kasabian. No-one does vitriol better.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Quote of the day

"I said to him 'How's it going?' and he said 'Quite eventful. I've just shaken hands with someone dressed as a turd. I've never shaken hands with a turd before - unless you count Noel Edmonds.'"

Steve Lamacq on John Peel.

The quote's taken from this article about the news that 13th October has been designated John Peel Day. Gigs large and small will be taking place the length and breadth of the country in memory of the great man - a fitting tribute.

(Thanks to Alex for the link.)
Mo Mowlam RIP

From one sad death to another.

I'd been meaning to post something about Mo Mowlam until I read this post on Musings From Middle England and realised that my own paltry tribute would be pointless and I'd be much better off just linking to Willie's brilliantly written personal response to the news of her death.

"One certain indication of an extraordinary person is when the grief that you feel at their death is out of all proportion to the part that they played in your life. I was not a close friend of Mo and knew her for only a brief period. But, although her death today had been expected for some time, I feel devastated by it and find this very difficult to write. I'm struggling to avoid the worst kind of sentimental cliché but I do feel that there's a little less love in the world now that she's gone. And even as I write that I can hear her shouting 'Wanker!', or something worse".
Heroic failure

A warm "Nice try but no cigar" to Phill and the rest of the Different Kettle Of Fish crew for having the inclination and audacity to invite Alan Fletcher aka Karl Kennedy from 'Neighbours' to play at one of their club nights.

Unfortunately it seems that "Fletch" (as he signs himself) had already opted to showcase debut album In The Waiting Room at Walkabout in Birmingham.

Where next, chaps? You could always try the girl that used to play Charlene.
Casino Cul-de-sac

Sorry to have to report that, owing to ongoing issues with Blogger and the hosting company, one of my essential daily reads Casino Avenue has gone into hibernation indefinitely. Hopefully the problems will be resolved sooner rather than later - I for one am not sure how long Inspector Sands will be able to stay away from the PC...
Music meme

From Del. I wouldn't normally do this kind of thing - nah, who am I kidding?

"List five songs that you are currently digging - it doesn't matter what genre they are from, whether they have words, or even if they're not any good, but they must be songs you're really enjoying right now. Post these instructions and the five songs (with artist) in your blog. Then tag five people to see what they're listening to."

1. 'Unmade Bed' - Sonic Youth
2. 'Love Me Like You' - The Magic Numbers
3. 'Everyone's A VIP To Someone' - The Go! Team
4. 'The Pioneers' - Bloc Party
5. 'Long Hot Summer' - Girls Aloud

I tag:

He Who Cannot Be Named
Dr Migs
Swiss Toni (because he gets guests in for his Friday Earworms these days and doesn't reveal his own)

Go to it!

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



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?)


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.


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
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.)

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


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


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...


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.


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".


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



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


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!"


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...

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.