Monday, July 31, 2006

Quotes of the day

"BBC political editor Nick Robinson, who is travelling with Mr Blair in the US, said the Prime Minister accepted that Qana had 'changed things'".

So, what did it take for our esteemed President to start to come to his senses and stop being Bush's (and Israel's) lapdog? This.

Meanwhile the US continues to resist appealing for an immediate ceasefire at the UN because, according to Dubya, they want "to develop a resolution that will enable the region to have a sustainable peace, a peace that lasts, a peace that will enable mothers and fathers to raise their children in a hopeful world".

Yes folks, that's right, it's all about peace, hope and stability. Perhaps they think if we're told enough times we might start to believe it?

(Other blog posts on the Qana air strike: Baghdad Burning, The Whole Wide World Of Fat Buddha)

Thanks to Alison for letting me know that one of the venues visited as part of January's rough pub jaunt around Birmingham city centre, the Dubliner, was wrecked by a massive fire in the early hours of Wednesday last week, with police suspecting foul play. No wonder I was getting search engine hits for "dubliner digbeth explosion" etc.

Regular patrons and local historians are - like the pub itself - gutted. OK so it was hardly the most classy of joints, but it had character and that's much more than can be said of many of the drinking establishments in the city centre.
Feel good hits of the 31st July

Another bumper edition, following a weekend of sifting through some of the many CDs that seem to have accumulated on top of my hi-fi over the last few months...

1. 'My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion' - The Flaming Lips
2. 'Weekend Without Makeup' - The Long Blondes
3. 'Spider Bite' - Winnebago Deal
4. 'This Scene Is Dead' - We Are Scientists
5. 'Hoodwink' - Anathallo
6. 'Made Up Lovesong #43' - Guillemots
7. 'It's The End Of The World As We Know It' - REM
8. 'Audition' - Yourcodenameis:milo
9. 'Milano' - Sigur Ros
10. 'Son Of A Gun' - The Vaselines
11. 'Dress' - PJ Harvey
12. 'A Warm Room' - Envy
13. 'Valerie' - The Zutons
14. '1000 Seconds' - Secret Machines
15. 'On The Radio' - The Concretes

Not very good that it's taken Victoria Bergsman's departure to prompt me into giving the Concretes album a proper listen, is it? Glad I have now, though - and also glad I didn't give up on the Guillemots single after only a couple of spins.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


And what a fine record that is - one of the very few 7"s I own.

Anyway, issue #19 of Vanity Project is out now, featuring all manner of goodness (and a few reviews from yours truly). Inside this issue of the fanzine, you'll find (amongst other things):

Interviews: The Gasman, Zukanican

Album reviews: Scott Walker, Sebadoh, Mclusky, Robots In Disguise, TV Smith, Bardo Pond, Hefner, Boy Kill Boy, The Divine Comedy, Bearsuit, Magoo, Tender Trap, The Gasman

Single reviews: Ralfe Band, King Biscuit Time

Live reviews: Buck 65, Daniel Johnston, Robots In Disguise

Film reviews: 'The Devil And Daniel Johnston'

If you want to get yourself a copy free of charge - and let's face it, you do - take a trip to the Vanity Project website for details.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Loud is the new loud


That Newton knew a thing or two - and I'm not just talking about apples.

Take his Third Law, for instance: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction". That would explain why, after spending time recently listening to a clutch of neglected indiepop bands (courtesy of Jonathan) and trying desperately to come to terms with Belle & Sebastian (courtesy of Mandy), I should find myself craving sheer volume.

Hence my turning to the post-hardcore of Yourcodenameis:milo and the gargantuan riffage of Japanese noiseniks Envy, and my desire to see 'Metal: A Headbanger's Journey'. And hence, too, my decision to spend a sweltering evening in the underground sweatbox that is the Barfly for a night of aural abuse.

First up are a local threepiece called Venus Elixir (though I could have sworn frontman Paul Van Der Kamp introduces them as "Wiener Schnitzel" halfway through the set - perhaps my ears are already going...). The majority of their songs sound like Placebo with a bee up their collective arse (no bad thing, either), but they're not especially tight and, to put it kindly, Van Der Kamp is not a great singer no matter how far you stretch your imagination. That said, the sound mix hardly does them any favours.

Far more impressive are Deguello. Taking their name from a 1979 ZZ Top album, they are perhaps the most unlikely-looking combination of musicians I've ever seen: a curly mop-haired bassist / vocalist sporting a Bad Brains T-shirt, a short incredibly enthusiastic drummer who - with his long hair, dodgy 'tache and skeleton print T-shirt - looks like a character from 'Heavy Metal Parking Lot', and a female guitarist whose presence would be remarkable enough (how many women do you know in stoner rock bands?!) even without her Topshop attire.

Whether or not they're a "drug experiment" (as one friend suggests), they rock - pure and simple. Winnebago Deal think enough of them to have produced them and brought them on tour (this being the last night), and for a while I'm wondering if it's a decision the headliners might rue. But there is something of a lull mid-set prior to the storming conclusion, so the threatened upstaging never quite happens. A close thing, though.

When another of my companions saw Winnebago Deal around this time last year, he was on a first date. Even better, she suggested it. As he put it, "I knew I was on to a winner"...

Last time I saw them, at Leeds 2003, they heralded the return of an awful hangover, and seeing them again now it's understandable. My ears are physically hurting after about twenty minutes of their hour-long set.

Playing to a disappointingly sparse crowd which includes a Gwar fan and all of Deguello, the two Bens rampage through track after track at breakneck pace. It's Motorhead meets Mudhoney, grunge kids discovering hard rock and playing it straight and fast and brutal without a hint of irony. It's not hard to see why they've recently been playing with ex Queens Of The Stone Age bassist Nick Oliveri in Mondo Generator.

As the set progresses, drummer Ben Thomas's T-shirt gradually changes from light to dark grey with sweat like one of those Global Technicolour T-shirts. I'm convinced they won't be able to maintain the intensity for the whole duration of the set, but they do. In there somewhere are 'With Friends Like These', recent single 'Spider Bite' and the title track from their latest LP Flight Of The Raven. The evening ends with a Black Flag cover - I'm assuming it's 'Revenge', as that closes the album. Deguello's bassist performs vocal duties with gusto in Oliveri's place, but not before lambasting us for being a "lame" crowd. All I can say in our defence is that just listening to this stuff is exhausting enough.

A note on the Winnebago Deal website about the recording of Flight Of The Raven says: "On the seventh twelve hour day of listening to brutally loud heavy guitars through studio speakers Jack Endino was seen holding his head, saying: 'It's punishing me....PLEASE MAKE IT STOP'". I know how you felt, Jack. My tinnitus is still with me nearly three full days later.

Back to the soothing sounds of Anathallo and Cat Power it is, then...
Jukebox jury

If you're not taking part in the belated annual Which Decade Is Top For Pops? feature on Troubled Diva, what on earth are you doing?

For details of what it's all about, click here. Then click here and scroll down, working your way through the numbers. You can still vote for each one - so no, there's no escaping Shayne Ward...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The sublime to the ridiculous

(A post title I've used at least once before, but hey it's appropriate and I'm all for recycling.)

Where better to be on a sweltering July evening than in the smaller of Chapter's two auditoriums (auditoria?)? Well, plenty of places - but then again they weren't showing a couple of films I was keen to see before their short run came to an end.

First up was 'Offside', Jafar Panahi's award-winning film about a group of fanatical female football fans in Iran.

It's the day of the Iran v Bahrain match, crucial to the home nation's hopes of qualifying for the World Cup, and the women, banned from attending the game because of the coarse male language and behaviour they might witness, are forced to disguise themselves as boys in order to try and sneak in. Those who are detected are detained by soldiers, but do all they can to keep abreast of what is going on in the game, at one point enlisting the assistance of one soldier as a commentator (unsurprisingly he does a better a job than Clive Tyldesley).

The women's fanaticism and enthusiasm can't be stifled by the soldiers, who find those they are guarding more than a handful. They are frustrated by their inability to defend or explain the senseless and seemingly arbitrary rules and orders they have to carry out, and in the vague but incessant mantra-like allusions to "the chief" and their "responsibilities" there are echoes of the faceless and inscrutable justice system of Kafka's 'The Trial'.

It soon becomes clear that neither the women nor the soldiers want to be there. One of the latter bemoans the fact that he should be on leave helping out on the family farm (and is thus being prevented from doing something he is passionate about too), and later, in a simple yet symbolic movement, steps inside the metal barriers to join the women in their holding pen.

The film comes to a climax with a marvellous scene in a minibus as the women are taken to the Vice Squad, listening to the radio intently as the game draws to a triumphant close. Raucous celebrations break out, and amidst the chaos the soldiers are dragged from the minibus to dance and the women escape into the joyous hordes.

I couldn't help feeling that the buoyant positivity of the conclusion detracts from the political message (after all, when the next qualifying campaign comes round, will Iranian women be able to attend their nation's home games?), but in purely dramatic terms it was a fitting end to a warm-hearted, touching and often very funny film.

So that was the sublime - then for the ridiculous.

'Metal: A Headbanger's Journey' is a documentary - or rockumentary, if you will - about that much maligned of musical genres, heavy metal. The film follows Sam Dunn, a 30-year-old anthropologist and fervent metal fan, as he traces the genre's roots and sketches the culture associated with it, before reflecting on some of the more contentious issues for which it is often (he feels) wrongly stereotyped: gender, Satanism, death and violence.

Dunn doesn't actually come across particularly well - a bit of meathead fanboy who says things like "Fuckin' awesome!" a lot and comes very close to dropping to his knees and shouting "I'M NOT WORTHY!" when interviewing the likes of Bruce Dickinson. In fact, it's left to some of Dunn's many interviewees to make the most interesting points and offer the most insightful commentary - particularly Twisted Sister's Dee Snider and Rob Zombie (but very definitely not Slipknot's Corey Taylor and Mayhem's Necrobutcher, who finds it difficult to say anything other than "FUCK YOU!").

What more might I have hoped for, other than a more stomachable person to navigate me through and rather fewer sociologists stating the pretty bleedin' obvious?

Well, there is certainly scope for expanding the section on gender / sexuality. Understandable perhaps, given that Dunn is hardly neutral, but the tone is very defensive. Snider (and others) touch on the homoeroticism of what is in many ways an extraordinarily masculine genre, but the point isn't really taken anywhere. It's true that it's not so much a boys' club any more, but the issue of sexism is pretty much swept under the carpet. And getting Lemmy to speak up in defence of Girlschool on that score is a brave move indeed.

If Dunn is an unashamed apologist in that respect, he is markedly less comfortable when confronting Norwegian black metallers about their Satanism and the early 90s church burnings which some carried out (Burzum's Varg Vikernes, who later murdered his bandmate) and others fully supported. And still do - Gaahl of Gorgoroth mutters his wholehearted agreement with a barb about Semites. What's disappointing is that, even though taken aback, Dunn allows this comment to slip by unchallenged (in the film at least), explaining it away as being related to the specific cultural situation in Norway, and thus allowing the opportunity to probe the political ideology behind black metal (Nietzschean Neo-Nazism, basically) which is much more sinister than their cartoonish Satanic allegiances.

But Dunn also largely avoids dwelling upon those cartoonish dimensions of metal (presumably out of fondness and defensiveness again). Gaahl, for instance, is interviewed in near complete darkness, and replies to Dunn's first two questions with one word answers only after taking deliberately slow draughts from an enormous glass of red wine. It's left to Alice Cooper and Bruce Dickinson to acknowledge the absurdity of it all. And to a large extent, THAT's why metal has been so ridiculed - because it's so ridiculous. It's that simple, I'm afraid (and I write as someone who still considers himself something of a metal fan).

'Metal: A Headbanger's Journey' is an entertaining if shallow overview of the genre, though how many non-metalheads it's likely to convince I'm not sure. Personally, I've been convinced that I should hear some more Blue Cheer - the snippet in the film sounds like Kyuss playing The Kinks, and I'm guessing they're favourites of Dead Meadow too...

The last word has to go Black Sabbath's Tommy Iommi describing Aston, the place in Birmingham where he grew up - and where we pretty much lived until January: "A shithole, basically"...
Quote of the day

"The possession of a book becomes a substitute for reading it".

Yes, Anthony Burgess, I know what you mean.

Though I have been better of late - it's marvellous what a series of long train journeys can do for my ability to race through even the weightiest of tomes. There are now three books finished and awaiting review on my desk: Alan Hollinghurst's 'The Line Of Beauty', Andrew Motion's 'Philip Larkin: A Writer's Life' and Philip Roth's 'Portnoy's Complaint'. Best get down to them, then - just not tonight, though...

Monday, July 24, 2006

Feel good hits of the 24th July

1. 'The Group Who Couldn't Say' - Grandaddy
2. 'Saeglopur' - Sigur Ros
3. 'Apply Some Pressure' - Maximo Park
4. 'Don't Let Your Man Know' - Graham Coxon
5. 'Ambulance Blues' - Neil Young
6. 'Push The Button' - Sugababes
7. 'The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song' - The Flaming Lips
8. 'Therese' - The Bodines
9. 'A Town Called Malice' - The Jam
10. 'Family That Plays Together' - Beatnik Film Stars

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Sweet Jayne?

For the first time since it first started, I've been consciously avoiding 'Big Brother'. It's easier than you think if you just avoid Channel 4 altogether and never buy a paper.

Of course, I have picked the odd thing up from what I've read on the internet. That, for instance, there's a bloke with tourette's, which I'm sure must still be hilarious. And that one of the housemates, Leah, had unfeasibly large tits and worked in the sex shop near Alan's house in Nottingham.

And now, thanks to Kenny's link to Charlie Brooker's column in the Guardian, I have a good idea of what new housemate Jayne is like:

"An entire 'Trisha' studio audience condensed into one bellowing chub-armed fishwife, even in the self-obsessive wilds of the BB house Jayne stands out as an unusually raucous attention-seeker, which is saying something. Something bad. In real life she must be unbearable: truly military-grade awful. Her voice is so jarring, each time she opens her gob I feel like someone's cracked a paving stone over my head and danced around cackling".

As Brooker suggests, Endemol seem to have tired of torturing the housemates and turned to torturing the viewers instead. Which doesn't make me want to switch on.

Incidentally, it seems that Inspector Sands of Casino Avenue has been among those instrumental in encouraging BBC Four to commission a series of Brooker's 'Screenwipe', following the three pilot programmes screened earlier in the year - just take a look at the show's website. Good work Inspector!
"Add another couple of strings and you confuse the guy"

Thanks to ByTheSeaShore for drawing my attention to this report on The Jesus & Mary Chain, which includes a brilliant interview and footage of the infamous riot at their North London Polytechnic gig in 1985.

Oh to have seen them in their prime...
Quote of the day

"Yo Blair".

George Bush greets his British counterpart homie. C'mon George - as Alan Partridge once said, what's wrong with "Good morning" and a firm handshake?

In other politics news, JonnyB's Post8 Save The Post Office campaign has received the enthusiastic backing of the UK Independence Party.
Places not to be with a raging hangover #1

Heathrow, on a scorching Saturday in July.

Friday, July 14, 2006



Dies Irae, the very amusing blog of JonnyB comment box regular Ivan The Terrible.

Struggling Author, who last night managed to gatecrash the premiere of 'Superman Returns' - with her parents.

Timboland, the new home of Tim, formerly of The Long Lost Lonely Lagomorph.


Alan recalls the day his life changed - "A blast of intense heat hit me, and as I looked along the balcony I could see the huge jets of flame billowing out of the top of the stairwell and high into the night sky. And my brain said to me, 'oh well, that’s that then', and shut down".


Mike has difficulty adjusting to provincial life following his return from London - "[I can't stop] spitting with contempt every time I pass one of our many, many Greggs sandwich shops ('When I was in London, everyone ate CRAYFISH AND ROCKET')".

Swiss Toni leaves his dignity and credibility at home and thoroughly enjoys himself at a Billy Joel gig - "It wasn't just the quality of the songs that made this a great night though; Billy Joel was the consummate entertainer throughout. He chatted to the crowd, he read out a marriage proposal, he spoke into someone's mobile phone for them, he cracked jokes - often at his own expense, he bounced up and down behind his piano and, when he wasn't behind his piano, he charged around the stage with more enthusiasm and energy than you might have expected for a short, tubby little guy pushing 60. He was great".

Kenny delivers his half-time report on the best albums of the first six months of the year.

Jonathan responds to sanctimonious pundits and journalists in offering an impassioned defence of Zinedine Zidane - "The match needed livening up just around then. I mean come on, nothing of note had happened for the preceding twenty minutes. As the spectre of penalties loomed, the French players were wandering around the pitch at walking pace, and if someone had placed a nice comfy sofa in the centre-circle the entire Italian midfield would have raced to curl up on it with a good book. This is not what you want from a World Cup final. You want passion. You want incident. You want the French captain to walk up to the nearest Italian and strike him clumsily in the chest with his head".

Del posts his first proper podcast, featuring everything from Frank Sinatra and The Carpenters to Fourtet, Lambchop, KLF and Beck.

Simon unearths another great band on MySpace, and again Los Campesinos! are from my current home city of Cardiff - "In the space of first track 'You! Me! Dancing!' we noted down the names of Architecture In Helsinki, My Latest Novel, Ooberman, Thunderbirds Are Now!, Heavenly, Broken Social Scene, Orange Juice, Khaya and Les Incompetents".

And finally...

Betty responds to a reader's recent post featuring pictures of shirtless Italian footballers with a gallery of snooker players - "Not all of us are taken with Italian footballers, with their toffee coloured wavy hair, dreamy green eyes, olive complexions and perfect muscle definition. Indeed, we set our sights lower and can appreciate a man who has something of the ghoul about him (as so many snooker players do) or who have infinite love handles, chronic acne or the sort of waxy colouring only achieved by men who have never encountered daylight, having spent every day since the age of seven in a snooker hall drinking and smoking".
Can you dig it?

At least, that's what the job advert should have said. Perusing all the dead-end jobs in the job centre on Wednesday, I came across this one, which is dead-end in another sense:


Applicants must be physically fit as you will be required to lift weights in excess of 25 kilograms and in possession of a full driving licence. Overtime working as required. Full training in all aspects of the job will be provided. Main duties include locating graves to prepare, dig and backfill graves by hand, including the use of necessary shoring and plant. Other duties include the maintenance of flower / shrub beds, hedges and grass cutting, general cemetery maintenance of sweeping, litter collection and cleaning

I seem to remember Pete being tempted by the prospect of working as a gravedigger a while ago. I don't have a full driving licence, so that ruled it out for me immediately - a good thing, probably, because I would have no doubt disconcerted my colleagues and visitors to the cemetery by singing "Diggin' the grave, diggin' the grave" as I worked...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Magic mix

Everyone likes good post. And post doesn't come much better than the CD that arrived for me from Texas last Wednesday. For, in the Shuffleathon expertly organised by Swiss Toni, I drew Mandy of I Have Ordinary Addictions, and this CD bore the twelve tracks she'd assembled for my listening pleasure.

First of all, I ought to apologise to Mandy for keeping her on tenterhooks for so long - but there was good reason behind the gap between receiving the CD and putting up this review. I wanted to give the CD a good few spins - I figured that some tracks were bound to be less immediate than others, and would take time to sink in, and so it's proved. As I recently said elsewhere, it's a compulsion of mine to be tempted into prematurely delivering verdicts on albums, and I was particularly keen for that not to happen here. Secondly I needed time to do a bit of internet research so I knew what I was writing about!

Swiss Toni had told me he thought the luck of the draw had been in my favour, and - as will become clear - he was spot on.

So, without further ado...

'Princess And The Pony' - Sean Na Na

Sean Tillmann is better known as Har Mar Superstar, and Sean Na Na is what he gets up to when he's not prancing around in his undercrackers with his sweaty gut on full display making the seedy white boy funk of Beck's Midnite Vultures sound positively wholesome.

It's indie rock, and it's not bad at all - if you can tolerate Tillmann's heavily accented nasal singing voice (which is reminscent of Placebo's Brian Molko), and I can. The song finds him imagining his own funeral, but it's far from being drearily morbid as he insists: "Shake your ass around my casket / And spin your favourite records". One of the opening lines is: "Someone buy a round before my liver fails". I understand THAT particular sentiment all too well.

Plus there's an invocation to "Clap your hands" which, given what follows, suggests a great deal of thought has gone into the track selection and ordering...

'In This Home On Ice' - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? I was clapping like a seal and shouting "Yeah!" when I saw they appeared on the tracklisting. A band I had read so much about but not yet heard (as you'll see, that was a bit of a recurring theme...), and here was a total stranger somehow knowing I needed enlightening.

The clapping and shouting subsided somewhat when I first heard the song, though, I have to admit. Probably partly because I hadn't been expecting something quite so uptempo or jangly / shoegazery, but mainly because Alec Ounsworth's voice takes a lot of getting used to. It's kind of a high-pitched blur (if that makes any sense), the words not often distinguishable even though the vocals are high in the mix. Ounsworth is often compared to Talking Heads' David Byrne in this respect, but I don't hear it. Anyway, very much an acquired taste - but one I think I've begun to acquire over repeated listens.

Musically, though, it appealed immediately so their self-titled album is now very definitely on the shopping list. Thanks Mandy!

'The Predatory Wasp Of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us!' - Sufjan Stevens

There were only two tracks on the CD that I recall having heard before, and I own both. This is the first of them, from the Illinois album released last year. It starts slowly with hand-picked guitar and flute, but later it blossoms beautifully with horns, more woodwind instruments and intertwining choral arrangements.

Had I been choosing a song from Illinois to put on a compilation, it would probably have been 'Chicago', 'Casimir Pulaski Day' or 'The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts'. But through hearing this track in isolation, I've come to appreciate its charms even more than I did before.

'Red Right Ankle' - The Decemberists

Another band I wanted to hear - but a bit of a disappointment, truth be told. 'Red Right Ankle' is an undistinguished if pleasant enough acoustic strum, over which vocalist Colin Meloy tells the story of "your red right ankle" and "your gypsy uncle", who had a hideout in the Pyrenees. No, me neither.

Factoid: drummer John Moen is or at least used to be in Stephen Malkmus's backing band The Jicks.

'Red Right Ankle' appeared on The Decemberists' 2003 album Her Majesty, which was produced by Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie. Speaking of whom...

'Scientist Studies' - Death Cab For Cutie

A band for whom the term "indie darlings" was invented, perennial favourites for those who soundtrack the likes of 'The OC', 'Six Feet Under' and assorted low-budget non-mainstream American films.

Back before the albums Plans and Transatlanticism took Death Cab For Cutie overground, a good friend lent me his copy of We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes. A couple of songs - 'Little Fury Bugs' and 'Company Calls' - ended up on mixtapes I still own. How album closer 'Scientist Studies' passed me by I'm not sure - it's significantly better than both of those.

Ben Gibbard's voice is superb, as ever, and the song builds steadily to a satisfyingly explosive conclusion and thirty-odd seconds of feedback. And, as regular readers of this site - and particularly regular readers of the Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music - know, I'm a sucker for feedback. A real high point.

'Find The River' - REM

Yet another spookily telepathic inclusion on Mandy's part, given that my interest in REM - a band I've always quite enjoyed without ever being evangelical about - has recently been reawakened by the acquisition of Reckoning.

Like 'Scientist Studies', 'Find The River' is another album closer, and another track that has somehow escaped my attention - prior to getting Reckoning, I only owned New Adventures In Hi-Fi but thought I knew Automatic For The People well. It seems not.

It'd be good to hear this in the context of the record, but as it follows the superb 'Nightswimming' I'm guessing that it'd probably strike me as something of an anti-climax. As with much of their material, I find it rather unremarkable - though certainly not without its charm, and my experience with Reckoning suggests that giving their albums (in their entirety) time to bed in might prove rewarding.

'Where Does Yer Go Now?' - Gorky's Zygotic Mynci

Not (I was initially a little disappointed to discover) a West Country take on Guns 'N' Roses' 'Sweet Child O' Mine', 'Where Does Yer Go Now?' is perhaps the track on the CD that has most benefitted from repeated listens.

It's a delicately majestic song featuring plucked banjo and careful orchestration, rivalling Sufjan Stevens in the symphonic indie stakes - if not even putting him in the shade.

Not quite sure what I was expecting from Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, but this wasn't it. On this evidence I can even forgive them that name.

'Put The Book Back On The Shelf' - Belle & Sebastian

Ah. The stumbling block.

There's no other way to say it: I dislike Belle & Sebastian intensely.

Mere mention of them has long set my teeth on edge, and I've never quite been able to put my finger on why. After all, some of the bands I listen to admittedly bear more than a passing resemblance to B&S at times - My Latest Novel, The Concretes. I've sometimes wondered whether it's less to do with the band themselves and their music than the sort of people who used to fawn over them at university. My tastes have mellowed further since then, and I resolved to listen to 'Put The Book Back On The Shelf' without prejudice, honestly hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

What the experience confirmed for me is that it very definitely is the music that I was (and am) primarily reacting against. But I'm still having difficulty pinpointing just what it is that irritates me so much. Probably Stuart Murdoch's voice - a feeble tremulous whimper that's even more grating on the self-referential bonus track which Mandy has slipped in sneakily but which only prolongs the agony.

But - and it's a big but - there's a thin line between love and hate, so you never know in the future.

'A Swallow On My Neck' - Morrissey

Back on track with a familiar voice. Moz is alleged to have abandoned his legendary celibacy recently, judging by the lyrics to his latest LP Ringleader Of The Tormentors, but there's plenty of (homo)erotic interest here, particularly the coyness of the chorus: "He drew a swallow on my neck / And more I will not say / He drew a swallow deep and blue / And soon everyone knew".

In musical terms at least, Morrissey's solo stuff has always left me hankering for Johnny Marr's songwriting, but this is pretty decent - especially for a B-side, to the 1995 single 'Lucky'. (My research also led me to discover where Swiss Toni got the name for Reader Meet Author from.)

I lived with a massive Smiths fan for the best part of two years, during which time our malfunctioning boiler was somehow accustomed to sounding like Morrissey. When he got married earlier this year, Matt became very probably the only person ever to have 'Hairdresser On Fire' played during the ceremony...

'Elevator Love Letter' - Stars

Again: read a lot about them, desperate to hear something by them. And 'Elevator Love Letter', from their recent album Set Yourself On Fire, is nothing short of marvellous: jangly C86-type indiepop that's on happy pills but manages never to be hamstrung by tweeness - how could it with lines like: "I'm so hard for the rich girl / Her heels are high and my hope's so low / 'Cause I don't know how to love"?

Stars come from the same Montreal Arts & Crafts stable as Broken Social Scene, and actually include BSS members Amy Millan and Evan Cranley in their number. I haven't heard the latest self-titled BSS record yet but I've got the first - and it's safe to say that 'Elevator Love Letter' really delivers where BSS only promised. Artful joyous pop music of the highest calibre.

So, that'd be another thank you to chalk up, Mandy...

'Waitin' For A Superman' - The Flaming Lips

The other song I already owned. As with the Sufjan Stevens track, I would have been tempted to go for something else from The Soft Bulletin, given the choice - probably 'Feeling Yourself Disintegrate', or (to reflect the sheer grandiosity of the album) either 'Race For The Prize' or 'The Gash'. But, again, hearing this song out of context helped to draw out its qualities, which are legion.

For my own CD I reached for Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, and chose 'Do You Realize??' as a brilliantly moving song which could stand in its own right. But if Mandy's choice of 'Waitin' For A Superman' is an indication that she rates The Soft Bulletin more highly, then for my money she's spot on. The later album is splendid, but The Soft Bulletin is in a different class altogether.

'Spectacular Views' - Rilo Kiley

And up go the volume levels thanks to Rilo Kiley, a band I've seen live but never before heard on record. A straight-down-the-line indie rock song, 'Spectacular Views' isn't particularly sophisticated compared to the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, but it really hits the spot and brings the CD to a thrillingly raucous conclusion - as one might expect given that it's another album closer (to The Execution Of All Things).

Like Death Cab For Cutie, Rilo Kiley's Jenny Watson is widely considered an "indie darling" - and if the rest of The Execution Of All Things and the more recent More Adventurous is anything like this then she and her band'll be very dear to me too.

So there you have it. I may not have liked it all, but the vast majority of the tracks were enthusiastically received. For the most part it was an education, and a thoroughly enjoyable one at that. The tracks I already had I appreciated hearing in a new light, and I'm even glad Belle & Sebastian made an appearance just so I could confirm what I already suspected.

I guess I ought to say something about what Mandy's choices say about her - but you can read too much into these things, particularly as the songs have (I think) been chosen purely on the strength of her love for them and their coherence on a compilation. Like my own CD, it's not particularly eclectic and the extremes of a record collection aren't represented, but it marks her out as someone with great taste.

So, all that remains is for me to thank Mandy again for the CD, and Swiss Toni for the concept and organisation and for introducing me to the blog of a like-minded music fan.

The internet: officially bloody marvellous.

(For ByTheSeaShore's review of my CD, click here.)

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Feel good hits of the 8th July

A bumper edition to reflect the vast quantities of music I've been digesting of late...

1. 'Psychosis Safari' - The Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster
2. 'Weekend Without Make-Up' - The Long Blondes
3. 'Saddest Vacant Lot In All The World' - Grandaddy
4. 'Scientist Studies' - Death Cab For Cutie
5. 'Strasbourg' - The Rakes
6. 'In This Home On Ice' - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
7. 'Who's The One' - Wheat
8. 'Elevator Love Song' - Stars
9. 'Strings' - Asobi Seksu
10. 'Love Letter' - Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
11. 'Vampire Blues' - Neil Young
12. 'Substitute' - The Who
13. 'Slayer' - Giant Drag
14. 'Sick 2 Def' (acoustic) - Plan B
15. 'Ring Of Fire' - Johnny Cash

The Death Cab For Cutie, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and Stars tracks are all from the Shuffleathon CD I got from Mandy (review to appear above shortly...), and thanks to Michael and Jonathan for pointing me in the direction of Asobi Seksu and Plan B respectively.

Friends have recently given me the Neil Young and Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster albums (On The Beach and Horse Of The Dog respectively), and I took advantage of Fopp's generosity to snap up The Rakes' Capture / Release and Grandaddy's Sumday for £3 each. Capture / Release, though immediate and containing a few good songs, is nothing particularly special - the lyrics are partly arch and partly Arctic Monkeys style realism, and the music a blend of The Buzzcocks, The Strokes and other leather-jacketed guttersnipes. Sumday has really impressed, though - nicely understated and very well put together. Perhaps I should invest in The Sophtware Slump and / or Just Like The Fambly Cat next?
Super furry animals

Two unrelated links under one suitable title:

Ian of Stylus and Fractionals catches up with Mogwai's Stuart Braithwaite to discuss how the band are growing old gracefully - and loudly.

Cats That Look Like Hitler.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A cock and bull story

Well over a year ago (probably nearer two), Kenny set out to document his experience of reading Thomas Pynchon’s beast of a novel ‘Mason & Dixon’. No doubt he won’t thank me for saying that the series of posts petered out long before the end had been reached. It’s that kind of book, exhaustive and exhausting.

And so here I endeavour to do in one post what Kenny tried to do across several: give some impression of what ‘Mason & Dixon’ is about, and what it’s like to attempt to read it.

First of all, it’s worth noting that it took me a good six months to get through it, though it was off and on and I was reading other things alongside it, partly as a means of retaining my sanity. And as someone who loves ‘Ulysses’, I don’t say that lightly.

The most daunting aspect of the novel is its sheer length. It sat on my shelves for over a year before I ventured to take it down, its thickness more than equal to two or three contemporary novels (which are themselves often pretty lengthy).

But it’s also written in a stylised archaic language, in which clause piles upon clause and sentences stretch on for line upon line, barely held together by the idiosyncratically liberal dashes and punctuation marks. It certainly becomes easier to deal with over time, but picking it up to read in fits and starts is far from ideal.

So, what’s it about? In basic terms: Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, the former a Gloucestershire astronomer and the latter a Geordie surveyor, who were commissioned in the mid-eighteenth century to demarcate an essentially east-west boundary between states in America, which subsequently became known as the Mason-Dixon line. Pynchon’s novel – its opening and concluding sections aside – essentially focuses on the dramatisation of the progress of this demarcation.

But if that makes it sound like a dusty-dry historical chronicle, then nothing could be further from the truth. Though there is plenty of evidence of meticulous research into the real-life duo’s movements and into the technical detail, Pynchon – in typically postmodernist fashion – makes no pretence of the fact that it is a work of fiction and has no claim to historical “truth” (whatever that might be, he might add). History is stretched, manipulated, toyed with. It’s an act of myth-making and mirth-making. As the characters lurch from predicament to predicament (led as much by their thirst for alcohol and women as by their work), absurdities continually irrupt into the narrative – as one might expect of a novel narrated by one Rev Wicks Cherrycoke, Mason and Dixon’s sometime companion, who at one point recalls a ritual at sea during which he got spotted dick lodged up his nose…

Less than fifteen pages in, the pair come across a talking dog – that pretty much sets the tone. Over the course of the next 760 pages, the reader encounters (in no particular order):

* Clocks which chat to each other

* Benjamin Franklin, who accompanies our intrepid travellers to an apothecary to stock up on drugs, and George Washington, who is growing a large patch of hemp behind his house (naturally they indulge and are subsequently grateful when Mrs Washington appears “carrying an enormous Tray pil’d nearly beyond their Angles of Repose with Tarts, Pop-overs, Ginger-bread Figures, fried Pies, stuff’d Doughnuts, and other Units of Refreshment the Surveyors fail to recognise”)

* A pickled ear in a jar which listens into conversations

* Lively discussions about pizzas, feng shui, whether tea or coffee is the superior hot beverage, the relation of a meat sandwich to the Eucharist, and the art of making realistic effigies

* Mason’s reminiscences of having met his late wife Rebekah at an annual cheese-rolling event at which he narrowly escaped being crushed by an enormous ball of Double Gloucester, and of later beginning “his practice, each Friday, of going out to the hangings at Tyburn, expressly to chat up women

* A duel over a lady’s honour enacted not by means of pistols at dawn but a game of quoits

* A bodice which plays a musical tune when ripped open by Dixon, Mason having been left carrying a bathtub the pair are in the process of stealing (the bathtub is later a temporary home to an electric eel called Felipe who becomes “the camp Compass, as often consulted as the Thermometer or the Clock”)

* A conversation between a Philadelphia lawyer and a miserable put-upon Beelzebub

* A mechanical duck equipped with a beak made of Swedish steel and “‘a Digestionary Process, whose end result could not be distinguish’d from that found in Nature’” which furiously pursues a French chef (Armand Allegre – say it aloud…) famous for his duck-based dishes and then falls in love with him

* A ghostly horse and carriage which gets held up in traffic over the skies of County Durham

* A man who transforms himself into a beaver, and another who is a werewolf

* Mason’s entrapment amongst lamb carcasses in the meat-hold of a ship

* A valley in which, owing to particularly fertile soil (the result of volcanic activity), monstrous vegetables and flowers grow (“Single Tomatoes tower high as Churches”)

* Dixon’s account of how he entered the inner core of the Earth via a hole at the North Pole

In other words, it’s safe to say that Pynchon’s allusion to Lawrence Sterne’s eighteenth century novel ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ – packed full of absurd digressions and the most widely acknowledged forefather of postmodern fiction – is very definitely not accidental.

That’s not to say that the humour is all ‘Monty Python’ esque surrealism – there’s plenty of good old-fashioned eminently sniggerable smut and puerility too: characters piss their names in the snow, axemen on the exhibition exchange “Your Mum” type school playground jibes (“‘I saw your Mother, and I Quiz you not, - / Drinking penny-Gin from a Chamber-Pot’”) and there are a fair few chucklesome gags (“‘King decides he’ll journey to the Sun … Alchemist says, ‘Your Majesty! The Sun? – it burns at thousands of Fahrenheit’s Degrees, - far too hot there for anything to remain alive’. King says, ‘So, where’s the Difficulty? – I’ll go at Night’’”).

Particularly amusing on this score is the discovery of an illicit publication “lying open to a Copper-plate Engraving of two pretty Nuns, sporting in ways … inexplicably intriguing” and the young man in question’s fumbling attempt at self-defence: “‘Why … sure they may be Renderings more pleasant to look upon … the Western Country at Sunset, probably, - Scenes of Religious Life, Hunting-Dogs, a Table-ful of Food … yet if one of you [women], beheld intimately, be all but unbearably fair, you see, imagine the sentimental Delight into which a Man might be thrown, at the sight of two of you’”).

But amidst all the absurdity and bawdy humour, drunken debates and bizarre tangents, there are also passages of unexpected lyricism: “Night over all this watershed how vast, that covers each soul in it like a breathing Mouth, humid, warm, carrying the odors of living and dying, that takes back ev’rything committed upon the Land that Day, without appeal, dissolving all in Shadow”.

And of course it wouldn’t be a postmodern novel if there wasn’t also some winking self-reflexivity. At one point the characters to whom Rev Cherrycoke is telling the story discuss the pernicious influence of fiction and its relation to reality. One asks “‘What of Shakespeare? … Those Henry plays, or the others, the Richard ones? are they only make-believe History? theatrickal rubbish?’”, and another maintains of the real Hamlet “‘All in all, a figure with an interesting Life of his own, - alas, this hopping, quizzing, murderously irresolute Figment of Shakespeare’s, has quite eclips’d for us the man who had to live through the contradictions of his earthly Life, without having it all re-figur’d for him”. It’s an argument directed against the central premise of the very book in which it appears – but for Pynchon all the fun is in using reality as a springboard for the imagination.

Reading ‘Mason & Dixon’ is something of an endurance test and demands perseverance – but it’s certainly not without its rewards.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

"She had a face like a beekeeper's apprentice"

At last. Last night I finally caught an episode of Steve Coogan's new sitcom 'Saxondale' in its proper slot.

Thanks to NTL's On Demand facility (marvellous, it's the future etc etc), I managed to see the second episode on Sunday night, and thought it a bit uninspiring.

The third installment was in a different league altogether. An old mate from Saxondale's days "on the road" (played by Mark Williams) turned up, both of them ultimately discovering that they were no longer able to party and raise hell as they once used to. Their contemporary Iggy Pop might still be lairy on stage, but, as Saxondale pointed out, "he still has to go home and descale the kettle", even if he does do so while wearing his leather trousers. The comic potential was obvious, and co-writers Coogan and Neal Maclennan milked it to good effect.

Again there was the feeling that some of the gags were leftovers from 'I'm Alan Partridge' reheated and shoehorned in, but that didn't make them any less amusing (not least the pepperpot anecdote) and you can't argue with quick one-liners like "He said the only physician he listens to is Dr Feelgood"...
Haway bwoy!

"A Geordie woman has apparently developed foreign accents after waking up following a stroke.

Linda Walker awoke in hospital to find her distinctive Newcastle accent had been transformed into a mixture of Jamaican, Canadian and Slovakian

It's a constant source of bemusement to me that when non-Geordies attempt the accent it almost invariably sounds either Jamaican or Indian...

But foreign accent syndrome isn't really something that should be made light of - it's obviously a traumatic experience for those affected. That this woman "feels like a different person" just underlines the extent to which accents - and particularly strong ones like Geordie - are an integral part of personal identity.

May she soon be back talking in that marvellous semi-incomprehensible dialect I love going home for.
Between the covers

Congratulations to Girl With A One-Track Mind, whose book will be appearing on bookshelves from 3rd August (link NSFW). If it's even half as refreshingly frank, well-written and downright entertaining as the blog from which it's sprung, then it'll be well worth a peek. Though be wary of doing so for a long period in your local branch of Waterstones, particularly if you happen to be wearing a long mac at the time.
Fashion victims

My review of Hello Movement, the debut album from louche lotharios Death Of Fashion, is up on the Vanity Project site. Think The Doors had they come from New York rather than LA - though it's not really all that, it has to be said.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

"You don't want to be defined while you feel you're evolving"

There's plenty of interest in the Sonic Youth interview in the latest issue of The Stool Pigeon, not least Kim Gordon's admission that she "hated" the V Festival last year - to which Thurston Moore protests: "But we got to hang out with Robert Plant! You don't get to hang out with Robert Plant every day"...

It wasn't until very recently that I discovered Jim O'Rourke, a full-time member of the band for Murray Street and Sonic Nurse, had left - the reason being that he relocated to Japan to study "film and language and culture studies". Apparently former Pavement and Free Kitten bassist Mark Ibold is going to be contributing both bass and guitar for their forthcoming American shows as a means of plugging the gap.

Naturally there's much talk of new LP Rather Ripped, which I still haven't got but which features like this just make me salivate even more. Moore claims it's heavily influenced by The Beatles, much to Gordon's surprise. "I've listened to The Beatles more in the last year than I ever have in my life", he says - not least because their daughter Coco loves them, and particularly Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band ("the most significant rock album in the history of rock!").

I'm guessing Rather Ripped still sounds like a Sonic Youth record though - as the article's author Natalie Moore begins by pointing out, it's always been the case with them that they are fascinated by both "high brow" art and "low brow" pop culture, and that both influences are absorbed, refracted and reflected while there remains at the core a sound that is distinctively and undeniably Sonic Youth.

Moore is often taken to task for his ceaseless gabbling about, and referencing of and endorsement of other bands (as well as artists and authors), but his response to the interviewer's point "You've always had a strong commitment to other bands and the underground music community" is that of a genuine fanboy who just happens to be in a hugely influential band:

"I don't ever see it as a commitment. For me, I just really like to see bands play. It's funny because I know most musicians don't so much. Sometimes I don't really have an interest in socialising or being in a situation with a lot of people, I just really like seeing a band. It's inspiring seeing what's going on withthe performance. I like to see how people actually PERFORM. Sometimes it's not even... I mean, it certainly is the music that draws me to a band, but sometimes I'm also drawn by personality or whatever is being physically presented on stage".

The interview concludes with Gordon's thoughts on a Gabriel Garcia Marquez quote, "In the end, it is impossible not to become what others think you are":

"I remember doing interviews years ago and somebody asking us what our record was like, or being kind of mad because somebody would describe or pigeonhole a song, or pigeonhole us in a certain way, but then, as time goes on, you kind of understand why they do that and why something becomes important or is analysed in a certain way. And you don't want to be defined while you feel you're evolving. But, at the same time, there is a point now where it is weird - you do get glimpses of, 'Well, maybe I AM that!'"

For someone like me on the other side of the fence from Gordon and Moore, it's really refreshing to hear someone in a band concede that pigeonholing is inevitable but also understandable and not always a negative thing. And at the same time I can appreciate that it must be frustrating to feel yourselves constrained by the labels those on the outside impose on you which you either don't think fit at all, or which don't fit any more because you've moved on. It sounds as though they've more or less stopped being concerned about the issue altogether.

Incidentally, this was the first issue of The Stool Pigeon that I've come across (in Fopp), and very impressive it is too: loads of good interview features including Arctic Monkeys, Mudhoney, TV On The Radio, Frank Black and Bobby Gillespie, plus news, a live section, comment and analysis and pages dedicated to other art forms. And all for nowt, too. If only they can resolve the issue of the serious quantity of ink it leaves on your fingers...
The maker's dozen

I've been fortunate enough to take part in the recent Shuffleathon CD exchange expertly organised by Swiss Toni. The idea was for participants to create a CD consisting of twelve tracks that either said something about them or meant something to them personally (or both). Each CD then would then find its way to a different participant for them to comment on.

As yet I haven't received a CD in the post, but as the luck of the draw would have it, the recipient of my CD was ByTheSeaShore, whose site is a regular read of mine. You can read what he made of my concoction here. Suffice to say that it's gratifying that most of the tracks made a positive impression, and pleasantly surprising that the Jesus & Mary Chain track didn't go down like a lead balloon, which I'd imagined it might well do.

So thanks to ByTheSeaShore for his considered thoughts, and also to Swiss Toni, both for organising the Shuffleathon in the first place and for helping me out with the logistics of putting my CD together. (The filesharing site SendSpace is a godsend, if you haven't already discovered it - thanks to Ian for drawing my attention to it.)

There'll be a full run-down of the CD I get in return here as and when it arrives.
Birds in the hand

As of yesterday, somewhat unexpectedly, we are the owners of a pair of budgerigars. They're as yet unnamed, because we haven't managed to be able to distinguish between them.

Life for them seems to consist of standing perfectly still side by side on their perch for hours at a time before descending for a brief foray for some millet, a bit of squawking and a frantic flutter of wings. And then it's back to the perch.

Apparently they love watching TV. I look forward to discussing the latter stages of the World Cup and the finer points of current 'Coronation Street' plots with them.
I'm free to do what I want any old time

... but many millions the world over aren't. A timely reminder that not everyone wants to write about what they've been listening to or post pictures of their cat - and that they're punished for doing so.

"The web is a great tool for sharing ideas and freedom of expression. However, efforts to try and control the internet are growing. Internet repression is reported in countries like China, Vietnam, Tunisia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria. People are persecuted and imprisoned simply for criticising their government, calling for democracy and greater press freedom or exposing human rights abuses, online.

But internet repression is not just about governments. IT companies have helped build the systems that enable surveillance and censorship to take place. Yahoo! have supplied email users’ private data to the Chinese authorities, helping to facilitate cases of wrongful imprisonment. Microsoft and Google have both complied with government demands to actively censor Chinese users of their services.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It is one of the most precious of all rights. We should fight to protect it.

Click here to find out more about this joint Amnesty International / Observer campaign, and what you can do to support it.
Word of the day

(Courtesy of my word origin desk diary...)

"TABOO: 'Taboo' is one of the words brough back by Captain James Cook (1728-1779) after a long sea voyage to the South Seas. It comes from the island of Tonga, and in the language of that culture, referred to something that was forbidden by a rule of religion."
The end of the road

From the Sleater-Kinney site:

"After eleven years as a band, Sleater-Kinney have decided to go on indefinite hiatus. The upcoming summer shows will be our last. As of now, there are no plans for future tours or recordings.

We feel lucky to have had the support of many wonderful people over the years. We want to thank everyone who has worked with us, written kind words about us, performed with us, and inspired us.

But mostly we want to extend our gratitude to our amazing fans. You have been a part of our story from the beginning. We could not have made our music without your enthusiasm, passion, and loyalty. It is you who have made the entire journey worthwhile.

With love and thanks, Sleater-Kinney

And they were such rock 'n' roll fun too. We'll miss 'em.

(Thanks to Kenny for the link.)